"Diva" (1981) was among the first of what they called the Cinéma du look movement, wherein a film was all about gloss, about style, and less about the substance. Despite the rather discouraging knowledge of this acquired definition of the movement, the plot summary was nevertheless, intriguing enough to give this one a shot.
A legendary Opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins, popularly known as the Diva (Wilhelmenia Fernandez), who is against recording her music, delivers a grand performance, which is secretly recorded on some top-notch equipment by a young postman, Jules (Frédéric Andréi), who is a smitten fan. He is noticed doing this by a pair of Taiwanese bootleggers and/or record label mafia (?) who decide to pursue the young man to get their hands on this priceless recording so as to blackmail and coerce the singer into officially recording for them.
Meanwhile, another vital tape, a confession of a prostitute implicating the city police chief (Jacques Fabbri) in a prostitution racket, makes its way, unwittingly into the postman's hands; a tape which is badly wanted by the chief and a pair of pimps who will go to any level to keep the root of the racket a secret. And thus begins a chase like no other; with its share of mix-ups and misunderstandings, involving a motley bunch of people either trying to save the tapes, destroy the tapes, or use them to their advantage.
It's not an original premise - we have seen stuff like this before, and also after: A single object of great importance (known in the cinematic parlance as the Macguffin), or in this case, two (tapes), in the possession of a clueless young protagonist, being pursued by unrelated characters for various reasons. We know what we are usually in for in cases like these. The main guy will be chased around town, wondering what the hell is happening, there will be a kingpin out to get the booty, and there will be opportunists waiting to take advantage of the situation. Bodies will pile up, the booty will exchange hands, and the plot will be driven to its exciting conclusion.
Not surprisingly, this is more or less how the story proceeds. And therefore, we begin to shift our attention to the treatment and also the how of it, rather than the what. We focus more on the handling, on the thrills, on the punches, rather than the direction of the plot development.
Jean-Jacques Beineix certainly achieves the look. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot captures the seductive neon-lit charm of the streets of Paris by night; not to mention the great use of colours, overall. The strange abode of Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) is electric blue. He loves the sea and owns a secluded castle overlooking the sea. Hell, even his jigsaw puzzle features the picture of a deep blue sea! Jules' apartment is a fancy place converted out of what seems to be an old loft garage, with beautiful artwork comprising of cars and nude women.
The scenes in the police station are always filmed with a beautiful sun-shiny golden hue. The eclectic soundtrack of Opera, synth-pop and classic rock goes a long way in making these awesome pictures come alive. There's a very ethereal feel to the long walk taken by Jules and Cynthia across the city in the early hours of dawn. An ambience of a chaste romance and perhaps an impossible one is very aptly created.
Sadly, all its visuals, its colourful characters and style, are not enough to get past some of the awful contrivances, some illogical twists and predictably silly turns that begin to surface in the latter half of the film. We are soon brought into the archetypal action thriller territory with impossible chases, incompetent cops and nick-of-time rescues! The famous moped chase scene is one of the most ridiculous scenes ever, even if it has been lauded for the way it has been filmed; either it hasn't dated well or it is simply not digestible enough. There are various other instances of characters popping up at the unlikeliest of places at the most precise of instances to save the day, or ruin it - it is almost magical!
It's a cliché that plagues many a Hollywood and Bollywood films. All the cops are bungling nitwits and all the villains are ruthless caricatures who get away with almost everything; 'til the very end of course, while you keep rooting for the good guys.
Stuff like this still works with the right handling and the right comic punches and thrills delivered the right way. But "Diva" doesn't have that kind of an edge to it. It doesn't help matters that the dialog is mostly tepid and half-baked as well. "Diva" struggles to stay afloat and we await the end of this vapid circus, while the titular Diva and the bootleg recording get sidelined for the most part. Cynthia literally disappears in the final half. Whatever novelty this plot had to offer, about the purity of music and its preservation, gets sidelined as well, and we return to the same old drugs and prostitution business. The confession tape and characters involved in it become the focal point...the spirit of music takes a back seat.
It's a beautiful moment when Cynthia reappears in the end to listen to her own tape and exclaim "I have never heard myself sing". Alas, by this time, we stop caring about her thought-provoking views on music.