Beineix’s highly stylized thriller Diva was in many ways the inaugural film of the French Cinema du look movement that would come to define popular film in western Europe throughout the eighties and early nineties. The core aesthetic principles of cinema du look were its emphasis on intricately crafted yet sensational visuals and a general foregoing of substance in favor of style. In more action heavy films, such as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, this translated into complicated chase or fight sequences while in quieter (for the style) films like Diva romantic or dramatic scenes would rely on deliberately overblown visual cues. In terms of social themes, cinema du look tended explore the idea of close-knit groups of friends being the primary support system for the characters rather than the traditional family. One could argue that this was a return to the exuberance of the French New Wave after the depressing realist cinematic movement of the seventies.
Diva’s plot is not particularly complicated, at least no more so than any other thriller. A young Parisian mailman called Jules happens to be an opera fan obsessed with the titular diva, Cynthia Hawkins. Hawkins is famous for both her virtuosity and the fact that she never makes recordings. One night she gives a recital in Paris, singing the aria Ebben? ne andro Iontano from Catalini’s La Wally, which Jules secretly records. However, matters are complicated when Jules also comes into possession of a recording which implicates a high-level police official in a prostitution ring. Meanwhile Jules also makes the acquaintance of a French-Vietnamese girl named Alba and, though her, a mysterious bohemian known only as M. Gorodish. The police official is frantically searching for the tape, and Jules soon has a pair of ruthless hitmen dogging his trail as well as a pair of Taiwanese gangsters who have learned of his pirate recording of Hawkins’s performance and wish to acquire it. Despite the danger growing around him, Jules attempts to take his adoration of Cynthia Hawkins to the next level be introducing himself to the singer. She is initially repulsed but is then bemused at the idea of having a fan like Jules and a romance of sorts develops between the two. As the hunt for the incriminating tape intensifies, Jules must rely on Alba and Gorodish to help him disentangle himself from the precarious web of intrigue he has fallen into.
As a story Diva leans on the contrivances of the thriller genre with a certain degree of self-awareness. Combined with a wonderful verve, means that nothing comes off as forced and there is a freshness to the entire enterprise. The pacing is careful and deliberate. Each facet of the story is resolved with a sort of quirky elegance that only the most careful attention to plotting can make possible. Visually the film makes a very effective use of its muted color palette, at its most dynamic creating a world of greens and blues against black and grey backgrounds. Colors are used as a way of cueing viewers in to the nature of a scene with greens used to suggest danger or malicious intent and blues used to suggest safe havens in the darkness. Romantic or joyous scenes are often attended with a veritable riot of color. The characters are more than well-written enough to hold the viewer’s interest, aided in no small part by the performances given by their respective actors. Jules is portrayed as an eccentric dropout whose sincerity and conscience ultimately transcends his rather creepy obsession with Cynthia Hawkins and allows actual love to take hold between them. Alba and M. Gorodish steal each scene they appear in. Alba manages to be both fey and brash, and seems to coyly dance her way through each scene, M. Gorodish is played as an almost enlightened figure whose whimsy is more than a match for Alba’s. Cynthia Hawkins is sympathetic and believable as a successful artist trying to hold true to her principles as the world changes around her. Special mention goes to the character of the assassin Curé, who brings a deadpan menace every time he slouches into a scene.
Diva uses the relationship between Jules and Cynthia to explore the often one-sided and anonymous love that a particularly passionate fan has for a performer or a celebrity. In this case we begin with Jules’ immature obsession with Cynthia. In the beginning she is only partially real for Jules, almost like a distant star: unreachable but somehow casting her twinkling light into his life. As their relationship develops Jules actually gets to know the real Cynthia and the fantasy he has built up around her begins to crumble. When the recording Jules has made of her concert apparently falls into the hands of the Taiwanese gangsters, who plan to copy and sell the recording with or without the diva’s consent, Jules realizes that his selfishness has brought actual harm. It is only after he returns the recording to Cynthia and admits his mistake that the diva and her fan are able to truly relate to one another. The film closes with Jules and Cynthia embracing on an empty stage, while the pirate recording plays in the background.