During Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s, British cinema was largely dejected, scathing, political and oppositional. But across the English Channel with François Mitterrand France, the films were glitzy and flashy, with a sexy if superficial neon glow: the so-called cinéma du look. No director was more responsible for this than Jean-Jacques Beineix.
He became both famous and ridiculed for that smashing 1986 hit that launched the smoldering career of its star, Beatrice Dalle: Betty Blue, a steamy drama in which an aspiring author embarks on a passionate, destructive affair with Dalle’s boisterous siren, Betty. It has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, the Globes and the Baftas, and has received nine Cesar nominations. But Betty Blue actually won only one César: the awfully reasonable Best Poster award (a prize that was discontinued a few years later), the iconic image of young Dalle towering beautifully in the blue of the deepening sunset sky, with the heavily picked beach shack below on a glowing horizon. It was a poster that adorned the walls of millions of college dormitories, and soon the film, and Beinix itself, were considered the immature taste of the 1980s: the gauntlets of French cinema.
But that doesn’t do justice to its boldness, energy and exuberance and the film that made it famous in 1981: Diva, a film with a residual New Wave ethos but with a little less politics. A young postman, speeding through Paris on a moped (that key New Wave vehicle) is obsessed with an opera singer, played by Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez; he accidentally comes into possession of a tape of a confession incriminating a top cop being mistaken for his own pirated tape of the diva singing the impassioned soprano aria from Alfredo Catalani’s opera La Wally, Ebben? No andrò lontana, with its window-breaking high note.
Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. Photo: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock
Legix single-handedly made this breathtakingly dramatic aria as popular among non-opera fans (to the annoyance of hardcore opera fans) as a hit single from an otherwise little-known album. No doubt Diva inspired the 1987 portmanteau 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 accompany a famous aria. Aria was garish and sassy, but some felt it was a glorified art-house take on the pop videos popularized by MTV at the same time. However, Beineix was not involved.
After Diva, Beineix made what both admirers and critics considered his seminal authorial play, The Moon in the Gutter, in which Nastassja Kinski plays a wealthy, predatory woman whose fate collides with a smoldering dockworker, played by Gérard Depardieu. His fans adamantly insisted that this was Beineix’s brilliantly playful, colourful, visually creative French spin on the American noir genre. The naysayers said it was unbearably presumptuous and absurd; Legix was deeply hurt to be booed at its Cannes premiere.
But last year in Cannes I was thinking of The Moon in the Gutter as festival-goers adored Leos Carax’s film Annette, his indulgent, madly ambitious musical fantasy composed by Sparks and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard . Who can doubt that Bergeix’s anti-puritan swing has influenced Carax? Both Carax and Luc Besson owed Bergeix a great deal, although it was Bergeix’s sad fate to have neither Besson’s lasting commercial influence nor Carax’s high-profile reputation.
In the ’90s, Beineix’s star waned, perhaps due to his characteristically heartfelt but unfavorable film IP5, which was coldly received by critics and in which its iconic star, Yves Montand, sadly died immediately after filming his character died.
Beinix has often been said to be style over substance. But is that fair? He had about as much substance as any working director of his time, but a lot more style, and a sensuous love of style at that. His Diva and Betty Blue deserve not only to be known as fashion accessories: they were living, living filmmakers. And amazing when you think of Altman, Godard, Jarman and others effectively bending the knee to Beinix in this aria collection.