Jules (Frédéric Andréi) is a Parisien postman who happens to have a passion for opera, and in particular the singing of a prima donna named Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez). She is a very captivating example of an opera performer in that she refuses to have any recordings made of her voice, so there are no records for her fans to listen to, they must hear her live in concert if they are to hear her at all. Jules is one such fan, but tonight he does something sneaky: as a possessor of some top of the range recording equipment, he slips a machine into the concert hall and captures part of the evening on tape...
Diva was one of the first of that very French, very eighties wave of movies known as the cinema du look, that was a series of works which took great care to be as stylish as possible both visually and aurally, and to hell with anything resembling a conventional storyline. The man ushering in this new movement? Step forward Jean-Jacques Beineix, who seemed to spend the entire decade manufacturing efforts which proclaimed the triumph of style over substance by telling us that style could actually be the substance, and nowhere more so than in his cult efforts here which captured the imaginations of moviegoers across the globe.
So if the best thing about this was its visuals and what it did with the sound, especially the mixture of opera and modern (for 1981) tunes, does that mean it's now a film whose time has passed as this paved the way for a plethora of empty but slick and even beautiful productions? Some would say yes, as although Beineix's eye for an arresting image was still striking, time had eroded some of that sheen, which is not always the case with groundbreaking visuals, but was tending to be here. On the other hand, that was what offered a now-vintage appeal, that attraction of watching something once considered state of the art no matter how it squared up to the standards of the current era you were enjoying it in.
Plotwise, this was based on a novel by Daniel Odier, whose other cult movie derived from his writings of this time was Alain Tanner's Light Years Away, a very different experience, but the director used that storyline not to be slavishly bound to a narrative, instead to use the plot points as a basis for a diverting scene whether it be the famous chase on the Metro on Jules' new motorbike with passengers diving out of the way, or more sedately when our hero has spent a night with Cynthia (Fernandez never made another film: our loss) and they are wandering the streets of the capital at dawn, thinking over their new relationship as fan and object of adulation. What she doesn't know is that Jules is the one who recorded her, and now he is being chased by Taiwanese music pirates who want that tape.
As if that were not enough, while he was on his rounds a dying prostitute slipped a tape which incriminates the real villain into the satchel of his moped, and he now has to counter both his machinations and those of the cops who are after him as well. To assist him in negotiating these tricky situations he meets an odd couple of a teenage shoplifter named Alba (Thuy An Luu) - the women in this film are like very few others in the movies, not quirky exactly, but memorable - and her platonic, older boyfriend Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) who spends almost the entire movie ruminating over the conspiracy in kitchen, bath and at a huge jigsaw until he has gathered his thoughts to work out how to solve the dilemma. It may all be desperately, self-consciously "cool", but that is what attracted audiences back then, it was like nothing much seen before, and that is what sustains its cult now as a period piece which has a vibrancy and charm which wins through some poorly thought out storytelling. It was all about that immediacy, that living in the moment. Music by Vladimir Cosma.