DDuring the reign of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, British cinema was largely pessimistic, caustic, political and oppositional. But across the Channel, in François Mitterrand’s France, the films were glitzy and flashy, with a sexy if superficial glow of neon: the so-called gaze cinema. No administrator was more responsible than Jean-Jacques Beineix.
He became both famous and mocked for that colossal 1986 hit that launched the smoldering career of its star Beatrice Dalle: Betty Blue, a steamy drama in which an aspiring writer embarks on a passionate and destructive affair with the mermaid impetuous of Dalle, Betty. It was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars, Globes and Baftas and earned nine César nominations. But Betty Blue actually only won one Cesar: the horribly appropriate prize for best poster (an award dropped a few years later), the iconic image of young Dalle standing magnificently against the blue of the sunset sky of deeper and deeper with the clearly chosen beach hut below on a glowing horizon. It was a poster that adorned the walls of a million student bedrooms and soon the film, and Beineix himself, came to be looked down upon as a taste of the 1980s: the leggings of French cinema.
But that doesn’t do justice to his audacity, energy and exuberance, and to the film that made him famous in 1981: Diva, a film with a residual new wave spirit but with something less political. A young postman who travels Paris at full speed on a moped (the flagship vehicle of the New Wave) is obsessed with an opera singer, played by Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez; he accidentally comes into possession of a tape containing a confession that incriminates a high-profile cop, who tangles with his own illicit tape of the diva singing the impassioned soprano aria from Alfredo Catalani’s opera La Wally, Eben? No andreò lontana, with its shattering high note.
Beineix single-handedly made this incredibly dramatic aria famous among non-opera-goers (much to the chagrin of hardcore opera-goers) as a hit single from an otherwise 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 accompanied by a famous tune. Aria was flashy and brash, but some thought it was a glorified arthouse version of the pop videos that were getting popular thanks to MTV around the same time. Beineix was however not involved.
After Diva, Beineix directed what admirers and detractors considered his key auteur play, The Moon in the Gutter, starring Nastassja Kinski as a wealthy, predatory woman whose fate collides with a smoking docker played by Gérard Depardieu. His fans stubbornly insisted that it was Beineix’s brilliantly playful, colorful and visually creative French take on the black American genre. Opponents said it was unbearably pretentious and absurd; Beineix was deeply hurt to be booed at his Cannes premiere.
But last year at Cannes, I thought of The Moon in the Gutter as festival-goers went crazy for Leos Carax’s Annette, his indulgent and wildly 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, although it was Beineix’s sad fate to have neither Besson’s enduring commercial influence nor Carax’s nerd reputation.
In the 90s, Beineix’s star waned, perhaps because of his typically heartfelt but inauspicious film IP5: Island of the Pachyderms, which was coldly received by critics and in which his iconic star Yves Montand unfortunately died immediately after filming the death of her character.
It has often been said that Beineix favors style over substance. But is it fair? He had about as much substance as any director of his time, but far more flair, and indeed a sensual love of style. His Diva and Betty Blue deserve to be known as more than fashion accessories: they were vivid and vibrant cinematic achievements. And amazing to think of Altman, Godard, Jarman et al effectively kneeling before Beineix in this Aria collection.