Jean-Jacques Beineix, of Betty Blue fame, made his glossy debut feature with this stylish but shallow adaptation of Daniel Odier’s novel of the same name in 1981. Although not initially perceived to be a success upon release in its native France, the bewildering crime thriller took to audiences when it reached the States and has since gained the mantel of cult status.
Diva opens with the protagonist Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a moped delivery man, sat inside a grand Parisian opera house, where he listens admiringly to the great American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). The distinguished singer strictly forbids her voice to be recorded, but the music-obsessed Jules can’t help but use this rare opportunity to secretly produce a high-quality bootleg of her performance. The young courier only intends to use this illicit audio recording for his own personal pleasure, but he soon begins to be pursued by a couple of Taiwanese henchmen, who wish to steal the cassette for their own money-making scheme.
As this unfolds, a separate incident begins to develop, as a prostitute seeks to expose a senior police officer in a sex-trafficking ring. But before the woman is able to hand the taped testimony full of incriminating evidence to the appropriate authorities, she’s killed by a pair of hitmen, and the audiotape is accidentally slipped into Jules’s saddlebag. With these thugs now trying to locate the tape, that makes two sets of highly dangerous men who are seeking the messenger, and the situation is further complicated with the introduction of a Vietnamese nymphet called Alba (Thuy An Luu), and her mysterious hipsterish partner named Serge (Richard Bohringer).
With its spectacular pop aesthetics and cool neon hues, Diva is an undoubted achievement in visual design and composition. Every frame is not so much a painting, but comparative to a high-concept photograph from the pages of a glamorous French fashion magazine – and that perhaps is the film’s greatest strength and weakness. For all the glitz, there seems to be very little logical sense or cohesion, and despite some thrilling action set-pieces, such as the subway chase sequence, it fails to sustain that level of excitement to the very end.
Diva does have its high-profile admirers, like Roger Ebert who added the film to his Great Movies list, but I must admit I’m not as enamoured by this as most critics seem to be. It’s flashy, but overall I found it a hollow experience.