The film made a successful debut in France in 1981 with 2,281,569 admissions, and had success in the US the next year grossing $2,678,103. The film became a cult classic and was internationally acclaimed.
A young Parisian postman, Jules, is obsessed with classical music; he is particularly obsessed with Cynthia Hawkins, a beautiful and celebrated American soprano opera singer who has never allowed her singing to be recorded. Jules attends a recital at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, where Hawkins sings the aria "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from the opera La Wally. He illicitly makes a high-quality bootleg recording of her performance using a Nagra professional tape-recorder. Afterwards, he steals the gown she was wearing from her dressing room.
Later, Jules accidentally comes into possession of an audio cassette with the recorded testimony of a prostitute, Nadia, which exposes a senior police officer, Commissaire divisionnaire Jean Saporta, as being the boss of a drug trafficking and prostitution racket. Nadia drops the cassette in the bag of the postman's moped moments before she is killed by Saporta's two henchmen - L' Antillais and Le Curé ("The West Indian" and "The Priest").
Two police officers are now after Jules, seeking Nadia's cassette, although they only know that it incriminates a prominent gangster and not that the gangster is actually their superior. Jules is also being hunted by Saporta's two murderous henchmen. A third party seeking him are two Taiwanese men, who are after his unique and valuable recording of Cynthia Hawkins. Jules seeks refuge from all these pursuers with his new friends, the mysterious bohemian Serge Gorodish and his young Vietnamese-French muse, Alba.
Feeling guilty, Jules returns Cynthia Hawkins' dress. She is initially angry, but eventually forgives him. Cynthia is intrigued by the young Jules' adoration and a kind of romantic relationship develops, expressed by the background of the piano instrumental, Promenade Sentimentale of Vladimir Cosma, as they walk around Paris in the Jardin des Tuileries early one morning. The Taiwanese try to blackmail Cynthia into signing a recording contract with them. Although they don't yet possess Jules' recording of her performance, they claim they do and threaten to release it as a pirate record if she doesn't cooperate; she indignantly refuses.
Jules is spotted and chased by the two police officers, but he escapes by riding his moped through the Paris Métro system. He takes refuge in the apartment of a prostitute he knows, but flees when he realizes she is part of Saporta's criminal network - he leaves just before L' Antillais and Le Curé arrive. The enforcers chase him on foot and Jules is shot and wounded, but Gorodish rescues Jules just before Le Curé can kill him. Gorodish and Alba drive Jules to a safe house outside Paris, a remote lighthouse, in Gorodish's antique Citroën Traction Avant.
Gorodish plans an elaborate scheme. Now in possession of the recording that incriminates Saporta, Gorodish uses it to blackmail him. Commissaire Saporta pays off Gorodish, but places a remote control bomb under his car. The Taiwanese blackmailers are also pursuing Gorodish and immediately steal the tape and his car. Saporta sets off the explosion, inadvertently killing the two Taiwanese, but not Gorodish. Gorodish drives away in a second Traction Avant that he had hidden in advance.
Later, Jules returns to Paris to give Cynthia his bootleg recording and lift the threat of blackmail from her. But he is abducted from outside her hotel by L'Antillais and Le Curé who were lying in wait for him; they take him to his loft apartment with the intention of killing him there. Police officer Paula, who has been keeping Jules' apartment under surveillance, saves him by killing Le Curé and wounding L'Antillais. Saporta then appears, kills his surviving henchman, and attempts to kill Jules and Paula, intending to make it look like his dead henchman shot them. Once again Gorodish saves the day by turning out the lights and making Saporta fall down an elevator shaft in the dark.
In the film's final scene, Jules plays his tape of Cynthia's performance for her and she expresses her nervousness over hearing it, as she "never heard [herself] sing."Frédéric Andréi as Jules
Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez as Cynthia Hawkins
Roland Bertin as Weinstadt
Richard Bohringer as Gorodish
Gérard Darmon as L'Antillais
Chantal Deruaz as Nadia
Jacques Fabbri as Jean Saporta
Patrick Floersheim as Zatopek
Thuy An Luu as Alba
Dominique Pinon as Le Curé
Dominique Besnehard as the record store employee
Isabelle Mergault as The game girl
Highlights of the soundtrack include the aria Ebben? Ne andrò lontana from Alfredo Catalani's opera La Wally, and a pastiche of Erik Satie's Gnossiennes composed by Vladimir Cosma.
The film initially was not a commercial success after its March 1981 release in France, where it faced bad press and a hostile reception by critics. However French audiences slowly grew after it was released in the United States and found success there. Diva played for a year in Paris theaters. David Denby, in New York, upon its 1982 American release, wrote "One of the most audacious and original films to come out of France in recent years...Diva must be the only pop movie inspired by a love of opera."
Film critic Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and praised its cast of characters. He called Beineix "a director with an enormous gift for creating visual images" and elaborated on his filmmaking:
The movie is filled with so many small character touches, so many perfectly observed intimacies, so many visual inventions—from the sly to the grand—that the thriller plot is just a bonus. In a way, it doesn't really matter what this movie is about; Pauline Kael has compared Beineix to Orson Welles and, as Welles so often did, he has made a movie that is a feast to look at, regardless of its subject. [...] Here is a director taking audacious chances, doing wild and unpredictable things with his camera and actors, just to celebrate moviemaking.
Ebert also praised the film's chase scene through the Paris metro, writing that it "deserves ranking with the all-time classics, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The French Connection, and Bullitt."
Since its re-release in 2007, Diva has received retrospective acclaim from film critics; review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 96% based on reviews from 45 critics, with an average score of 8 out of 10. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly gave it an A rating and praised its "voluptuous romanticism". She wrote of the film's visual ties to cinéma du look, "the movie's mad excitement hinges entirely on the pleasure to be had in moving our eye from one gorgeously composed stage set of artifice to another."César Awards:
Best Debut: Jean-Jacques Beineix
Music: Vladimir Cosma
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
Sound: Jean-Pierre Ruh
The film was entered into the 12th Moscow International Film Festival and was also selected as the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 54th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.