When it was released 25 years ago—and for some time afterwards, on home video—Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva must have seemed like the coolest French movie around—hip, stylish, colorful, full of great music, and hewed closely enough to Hollywood convention as to not be inaccessible. It marked the beginnings of a small but defining movement in French film called "Cinema Du Look," which trafficked in slick imagery and navel-gazing romanticism over anything that remotely resembled substance. (See also: the films of Luc Besson and Leos Carax.) Seen today, Diva has lost some of its original magic, since its super-glossy aesthetic has been co-opted innumerable times, often to greater effect, by contemporary French, Hong Kong, and American art movies. And since there's little but empty calories in the convoluted plot of a young postman on the lam, it's a struggle to glean much of value from the movie.
Leading a solitary life with few possessions outside a sparse Paris loft and his trusty moped, Frédéric Andréi obsesses over opera soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, a recluse who long refused to commit her voice to record. Andréi sneaks a Nagra recorder into one of her concerts and comes away with perfect audio for his own private gratification, but when Taiwanese bootleggers find out about the tape, they come after him. As if that wasn't enough, a prostitute in possession of another tape—this one implicating a corrupt higher-up in the police department—slips it into his bag, leading to a second group of ruthless thugs (including future Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) on his tail. For protection, he turns to a pretty young kleptomaniac (Thuy An Luu) and her mysterious philosopher roommate (Richard Bohringer).
As Andréi flees the mob, the cops, and seemingly half the criminal population of Paris, Diva reaches a liberated, New Wave-inspired fever pitch, typified by a justly famous chase through the staircases and tunnels of a Metro subway station. In the end, Beineix doesn't aspire to anything more significant than a stylish divertissement, but the film mostly succeeds on that front, with particularly strong contributions from cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and composer Vladimir Cosma, whose simple, gorgeous piano score carries much of the atmospheric load. But the problem with Diva is that its innovations are now clichés, since Cinema Du Look has become, simply, art cinema as we've come to expect it.
Key features: An awkwardly overdubbed Beineix commentary joins a long, segmented series of documentary featurettes called "Discovering Diva."