In the spring of 1981, Jean-Jacques Beineix unveiled his debut film in Paris: a brash, snazzy thriller about the infatuation of a sullen young deliveryman (Frédéric Andrei) with a reclusive opera diva (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), the high-quality bootleg he makes at one of her performances, and the dizzy dilemmas that ensue. Conspicuously clever and shamelessly glam, Diva contrived a neo-new-wave sensibility with a post-Pop gloss that came to be known as “cinéma du look,” a Franglais label for the micro-movement of super-stylish, unabashedly romantic pictures made throughout the ’80s by a clique of bright young things including Beineix, Luc Besson, and Leos Carax.
“The reviews were horrible,” Beineix recalls in the press notes for the 25th- anniversary re-release, which opens at Film Forum in a fresh, newly subtitled print. Lingering in theaters a full year after its premiere, Diva gradually became a hometown hit; by the time it opened in New York, it was a critical and popular phenomenon. If Beineix’s garish pop aesthetic was ahead of its time, it wasn’t by much. Five months after the Paris release, the small-screen equivalent of “cinéma du look” began broadcasting on the newfangled cable network MTV.
Half a century later, a glut of über-groovy meta-thrillers has blunted the novelty of Diva, but its gamboling flair is still a kick. The breezy, harebrained plot spins out from a mix-up over a pair of audio tapes: the opera bootleg made by Jules (Andrei) to be savored in the privacy of his impeccably disheveled loft, and the one he discovers in a side pocket of his scooter, stashed there by a prostitute before she was killed for its contents—testimony that implicates police chief Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) in a white-slavery ring.
Beineix arranges his characters into teams and patterns the action of Diva from their overlapping agendas. Saporta dispatches a pair of ineffectual cops to investigate the dead hooker, and a goofy thug duo to retrieve the incriminating tape. On the run, Jules falls in with a benevolent eccentric named Gorodish and his sassy companion Alba, a prepubescent gamine fond of roller-skating around their modernist mansion in transparent ponchos. Meanwhile, two shady Taiwanese music pirates lurk outside scheming for the bootleg, a cat named Ayatollah pads her way through the footloose funhouse, and Beineix keeps going, fearless and foolish, piling extravagance on extravagance.