DDuring the reign of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, British cinema was largely pessimistic, caustic, political and oppositional. But in the English Channel, in François Mitterrand’s France, the movies were glitzy and flashy, with a sexy if shallow neon glow: the so-called watch the cinema. No director was more responsible for this than Jean-Jacques Beineix.
Made famous and ridiculed for that colossal 1986 hit that launched its star Beatrice Dalle’s fiery career: Betty Blue, a steamy drama in which an aspiring writer embarks on a passionate and destructive affair with Dalle’s impetuous siren, Betty. It was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars, the Globes and the Baftas and received nine César nominations. But Betty Blue actually won only one Cesar: the terribly appropriate award for best poster (an award that was discontinued a few years later), the iconic image of young Dalle looming beautifully in the blue of the evening sky with the shack of the beach completely chosen. down there on a shimmering horizon. It was a poster that graced the walls of a million student dormitories and soon the film, and Beineix himself, came to be disparaged as a callow taste of the 1980s: the leg warmers of French cinema.
But that doesn’t do justice to his audacity, energy and exuberance, nor to the film that made him famous in 1981: Diva, a film with a residual New Wave spirit but a little less political. A young postman touring Paris on a moped (that key New Wave vehicle) is obsessed with an opera singer, played by Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez; accidentally comes into possession of a cassette tape containing a confession incriminating a high-ranking policeman, which is mistaken for his own illicitly smuggled cassette of the diva singing the passionate soprano aria from Alfredo Catalani’s opera La Wally. In this? not andrfar, with its high note that breaks windows.
Beineix single-handedly made this incredibly dramatic aria famous among non-opera fans (much to the irritation of opera fans) as a smash hit single from a little-known album. Diva undoubtedly inspired the 1987 film Aria, in which directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Julien Temple and Nicolas Roeg each created a short piece to the accompaniment of a famous aria. Aria was flashy and brash, but some felt she was a glorified arty take on the pop videos that were becoming popular through MTV around the same time. However, Beineix was not involved.
Following Diva, Beineix made what fans and detractors alike felt was her key auteur work, The Moon in the Gutter, starring Nastassja Kinski as a predatory wealthy woman whose fate collides with a smoldering dockworker played by Gerard Depardieu. His followers stubbornly insisted that this was Beineix’s brilliantly funny, colorful and visually creative French spin on the American film noir genre. Critics said it was unbearably pretentious and absurd; Beineix was deeply hurt when she was booed at her Cannes premiere.
But, last year at Cannes, I thought of The Moon in the Gutter as festival-goers went wild for Leos Carax’s Annette, his indulgent and insanely ambitious musical fantasy composed by Sparks and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Who can doubt that Carax was influenced by Beineix’s anti-puritan flourish? Both Carax and Luc Besson owed Beineix a great deal, though Beineix’s sad fate was to have neither Besson’s enduring business influence nor Carax’s intellectual reputation.
In the ’90s, Beineix’s star waned, perhaps due to his characteristically candid but unfavorable film IP5: Island of the Pachyderms, which was coldly received by critics and in which his iconic star, Yves Montand, sadly died immediately. after filming his character’s death.
Beineix was often said to be style over substance. But is that fair? He had almost as much substance as any working director of his day, but far more style and, indeed, a sensual love of style. His Diva and Betty Blue deserve to be known as more than just fashion accessories – they were vivid and vibrant movies. And it’s amazing to think of Altman, Godard, Jarman and others bending the knee to Beineix in that Aria collection.