A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There is a sense in which Diva is a victim of its own success. We know from the evidence of contemporaneous reviews that the 1981 release was greeted with "liking nothing else"-style responses, whether for good or ill; Roger Ebert was an enormous fan, while the critics in the film's native France treated it like some manner of toxic thing, but they all agreed that the all-in marriage of pop culture, genre, surface gloss, and youthful energy was some brand new thing. Decades later, I can't help but look at it as a not-as-good version of a Leos Carax film; but that's stupid unfair, given that without Diva and director Jean-Jacques Beineix leading the way, we would perhaps not even have Leos Carax. For the one-of-a-kindness of Diva ended up kicking a loosely-aligned movement including most prominently Beineix, Carax, and Luc Besson, the so-called cinéma du look. Like many another ostensible cinematic cycle, cinéma du look was only identified from the outside, and after nearly all of its important titles had been released already, and I do not know that any of the three directors actually thought of their work in such a systematic way.

What I do know is that "the look" is about as good a way to sum up the aesthetic of Diva as any other one you'd be likely to hit upon. It's possible to be reductive about these things, and that's certainly something to be avoided, but there's no doubt that the movie is exceptionally concerned with the visual aspect of things, be they objects or spaces or human beings. One of the guiding principles of the film's technique, both in the framing of shots and how those shots are edited together, is the presentation of isolated "posed" shots. By which I mean, shots of something - a chair, a table, a junkyard crane - arranged in relationship to the camera lens and the lights to create a striking impression of that thing's shape and lines and textures. These shots are not so immaculately composed as to meet the definition of a tableau, for generally speaking there's only one or two things in any given shot that we're invited to look at, but "minimalist tableau" at least points us in the right direction. These are images empty of narrative content, and generally not cut together to give us any real sense of how they fit within spaces: just as advertised they are entirely about "the look" - both "the look" in the sense of "what they look like", and as a synonym for "the spectator's gaze".

That's a part of the film, anyway. Crudely, we could break images in Diva down into "plot" and "look" functions, and these divisions are entirely unrelated to the screenplay (by Beineix and Jean Van Hamme, after a novel by Daniel "Delacorta" Odier), which is always firmly in "plot" mode. It's just that sometimes, the movie cares more about that plot than at others. Beineix and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and editors Monique Prim & Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte generally treat these plot-oriented moments with a fairly standard aesthetic: a shot-reverse shot of medium and medium-wide framings with some close-ups put in for emphasis; it's never exactly normal looking, since Rousselot's cinematography favors putting a sheen over the colors that puts a distinctly stylised gloss on the action (I cannot quite explain it, but it's some combination of both urban realist grittiness and the metallic polish of a fashion shoot), but it's generally normal in its function. And this matters, I think: if the whole of Diva was nothing other than the semi-abstracted posed shots of furniture, it would quickly become unexceptional, but by always interrupting the flow of fairly routine, if unusually attractive filmmaking with isolated moments of "looking", those moments remain startling and fresh.

There is, mind you, an actual story to go along with all of this, and despite my perhaps snitty insinuations, it's actually a pretty cool one. It's clear from the opening credits over freeze frames of the characters that there's a certain infatuation with the Godard wing of the French New Wave at play, and accordingly, Diva is a kind of ludicrous crime thriller. But it's also about people who love opera, and those points converge on Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a young delivery boy in Paris who, in the first scene, manages to covertly record the great American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez, in her solitary film role) as she sings "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from the obscure opera La Wally (the aria itself has become one of the most recognisable in the repertoire, a development for which this very movie can take much of the credit). The recording scene is itself a perfect little mixture of the film's two obsessions, given that Jules's surreptitious actions are staged and cut more than a little bit like watching an assassin prepare to take out a target in a crowded European opera house, which is of course every movie assassin's favorite place to do their work.

Things get enormously complicated from here: Hawkins notoriously refuses to allow herself to be recorded and has never released and official album, which makes Jules's tape one of the most desirable recordings in all of the opera world, and before you can say "Taiwanese opera bootleggers", a pair of Taiwanese opera bootleggers are chasing him. Along the way, Jules accidentally comes into possession of a second tape, containing a dead prostitute's testimony against Commissaire Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) of the Paris homicide department, and also the region's most notorious human trafficker. And that makes three pairs of pursuers trying to find Jules: Saporta has his own thugs (one played by future Jean-Pierre Jeunet muse Dominique Pinon) looking for the tape, but pair of his subordinates in the police department are hunting for it as well, unaware that their boss is the ganglord they've been tracking. Jules's only allies in this time of great stress are a pair of offbeat bohemians: Alba (Thuy An Luu), a young French-Vietnamese woman, and Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), an inexplicable figure indeed, a sort of dirt-class philosopher and lover of life.

The plot goes up, down, and sideways, hitting striking moments of crime movie stylisation and erotics along the way (reaching possibly its most erotic height in a moment that finds Jules and Alba listen to his recording of Hawkins while lying chastely in bed, something like a surrogate threesome involving the film's three most important characters). The Godard comparison isn't idle: the mixture of sex, youth culture, and pop art within the framework of a gangster picture narrative is something of a stock form in that director's '60s work. Diva adds high culture to go along with pop culture, and draws from fashion photography as well as movie aesthetics, but the lineage is clear as could be regardless. And like Godard, the whole thing is so obviously fictive that the film invites us to think about something other than the plot and characters, who at most stand in for the Youth In France Today, rather than having any real psychological weight. In the '60s, it was the political dimensions of art consumption; to Beineix in the '80s, it's all about aesthetic pleasure. The bold colors, particularly blue; the strong compositions of interesting-looking people in attractive clothes; the rendering of everyday Paris into spectral movie locations. And certainly not least, Fernandez's sublime (if, by now, hopelessly over-exposed) recording of "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana". Let us not forget, after all, that the whole of the plot springs from Jules's belief that listening to a beautiful voice is worth any risk or personal cost; that enthusiastic celebration of consuming beautiful things because they are beautiful is the heart and soul of Diva, and the source of the great satisfaction of watching the film itself.