A first feature of remarkable elegance and assurance, "Diva," written and directed by Jean-Jacques Deineix, seems to call for a sustained low whistle of admiration. It is the most seductively stylized movie thriller since Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill."
The only question about this savory French import is whether or not its stylistic refinement tends to diffuse the conventional suspense ingredients of the plot. Deineix is already such a finesse artist that his control of the elements being orchestrated usually dominates your attention, subordinating the melodramatic pretense that the hero is in a race against time.
Though it's a supremely graceful, precision-mechanism entertainment, "Diva" isn't calculated to set the pulse racing. Even the characters tend to be streamlined down to purely symbolic identities. The most effectual character turns out to be a disarmingly detached artist figure named Gorodish (Richard Bohrinder) who represents nothing so much as the filmmaker himself, pulling all the right strings from a position of omniscience behind the scenes.
The mystery plot is set in motion by the craving of the young hero, a solitary messenger boy named Jules (Frederic Andrei), for a permanent recording of the celebrated soprano he idolizes, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, the American singer who went on to star in the Paris Opera after making her initial impact here in the Houston Grand Opera revival of "Porgy and Bess"). Stubbornly insisting on the uniqueness of each singing engagement, Hawkins has refused to be recorded. Jules attends one of her recitals and clandestinely records the performance, intending to use the tape solely for his own pleasure.
In fact, Jules has violated the privacy of his idol in more ways than one on the night of the concert. After sneaking a recording, he also pinches her gown while backstage to seek an autograph. This additional theft makes the papers the following day, prompting the headline question, "Who Stole the Diva's Gown?"
Jules is moved to make amends--and begin emerging from his adolescent solitude and insecurity--after his own privacy is violated. A pair of mercenary tape pirates, first spotted sitting behind Jules at the concert, is determined to acquire the tape, using it to coerce a deal out of the reclusive opera star. At the same time, Jules is endangered by the possession of a tape that has been desperately entrusted to him without his knowledge: While making a delivery at the St. Lazare train station, he bumps into a fugitive woman who flips a cassette into his mail pouch before being abducted by two thugs.
Ignorant of the cassette, Jules is also ignorant of the aftermath to this strange encounter. After struggling free of her captors, the woman is murdered in the street. Both the police and the killers soon become aware of the mysterious cassette, which the victim meant to pass to a police informant. Convinced that the tape reveals the identity of a Mr. Big in the prostitution and drug world, cops and crooks attempt to locate Jules, but by that time he's already been forced into hiding by the original tape caper.
Jules is drawn into a tender, mutually beneficial friendship with Cynthia Hawkins as a consequence of the tape he recorded, but the plot keeps her immune from the danger he faces. Although the police are the only plausible source of protection for Jules, it's the fantastically cunning Gorodish who becomes his crucial protector, emerging as the deus ex machina always several jumps ahead of everyone else.
Perfecting a cool style of his own, Deineix gives the film a crisp, subtly shaded pictorial theme. The backgrounds tend to be silvery blue, echoing the color scheme found in Gorodish's loft. However, Deineix keeps getting seductive effects by isolating warmly colored skin tones, fabrics, objects or pools of light against the prevailing blueness. The approach is summed up the first time Wilhemenia Wiggins Fernandez sings: She's posed against a blue backdrop and dressed in silver evening gown, but her brown skin and rich voice combine to put a lustrous glow on those austere tones.
Ultimately, the most original aspect of "Diva" is the way Deineix manipulates a thriller premise to accommodate reveries on loftier themes. Although it's more impressive as an exercise in style than in mystery exposition, "Diva" has a thematic suggestiveness that seems fresh and surprising for the genre. A conventional romance is missing, replaced by a curiously affecting symbolic drama about the interdependency of performer and public.