This stylish 1981 cult favorite from Jean-Jacques Beineix tells of a young man’s obsession with an opera singer, and his accidental involvement in a crime scandal.
As the 1980s began, the French New Wave was just about over, and art cinema worldwide was trying hard to reinvent itself. Then along came a flashy little French film, ostensibly a crime picture, but younger feeling, quirkier, and more stylish than people were used to at the time. It was a hit, and it crossed over to the States and became a hit here too—now it’s considered a cult film. From 1981, directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, it’s Diva.
The diva of the title is Cynthia Hawkins, a beautiful African-American opera singer played by real-life opera singer Wilhelmenia Fernandez. In the opening scene she’s performing at a recital in Paris. Secretly, in the audience, a young man is recording the concert with some advanced equipment hidden under his coat. Also in the audience, watching him, are a couple of mysterious looking Asian guys in shades. After the show, the young man, a postal carrier named Jules (played by Frédéric Andréi), approaches her as she signs autographs and tells her what a big fan he is. As he’s leaving, he steals the gorgeous blue cloak that she had worn during the show, from a coat rack when no one is looking.
It turns out that Cynthia refuses to put her voice on record, believing in the purity of the live experience. But Jules doesn’t record her in order to sell the tape, but only so he can listen to her at home. Home is a large messy studio where he paints and does other kinds of art when he’s not delivering mail on his moped. The crime of the stolen cloak is reported in the newspapers, and then, a prostitute running from some bad guys, on her way to talk to a couple of cops about something, stashes a tape in Jules’ mail bag before getting shot down. The bad guys are after the tape, and meanwhile the two Asian men turn out to be music pirates from Taiwan who want the tape of Cynthia’s singing. And on top of all that, the cops are looking for Jules too. Now the plot goes into full gear when Jules gets romantically involved with Alba, a cute Vietnamese shoplifter, played by Thuy An Luu, who becomes interested in his predicament, telling all about it to her friend, a mysterious and eccentric recluse named Serge Gordorish, who is played by Richard Bohringer.
Describing the plot makes it sound more complicated than it is. Beineix doesn’t waste time with exposition; everything just sort of flows ahead, with the audience managing to catch up as the film winds its way. The visual style is bright and colorful. The main character, Jules, comes off as a decent, albeit somewhat difficult kind of guy. It’s part of the movie’s sense of humor that all this criminal intrigue is swirling around someone who is mostly oblivious to it, lost in his own obsessive little world.
The story is adapted from a novel which is part of a series by a guy named Delacorta, a crime series that was remarkable for focusing not on the amateur detective and his female sidekick, so much as the weird, interesting people that they run into. The unusual detective here is Gordorish, whose character is embellished with some wonderfully strange behavioral twitches, such as slicing onions for dinner while wearing a gas mask.
I confess that Diva’s reputation as a cult film made me avoid seeing it for years. In my experience, too many so-called cult films end up being pretentious disappointments. This one surprised me by how really good it is. Beineix rolls out one improbable thing after another, and it doesn’t matter because his style is so smooth and relaxed, and the soundtrack, mixing pop music with opera, is so enjoyable. Diva is streaming and on DVD. And it was worth the wait.