During Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s, British cinema was largely downbeat, caustic, political and oppositionist. But over the Channel in François Mitterrand’s France, the movies were glitzy and flashy, with a sexy if superficial neon sheen: the so-called cinéma du look. No director was more responsible for this than Jean-Jacques Beineix.
He became both famed and mocked for that colossal 1986 hit which launched the smouldering career of its star Beatrice Dalle: Betty Blue, a steamy drama in which an aspiring writer embarks on a passionate, destructive affair with Dalle’s impetuous siren, Betty. It was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars, the Globes and the Baftas and got nine César nominations. But Betty Blue actually won just one César: the horribly appropriate award for best poster (an award discontinued a few years afterwards), the iconic image of the young Dalle looming beautifully up in the blue of deepening sunset-sky with the beach shack starkly picked out down below on a glowing horizon. It was a poster that adorned a million student bedroom walls and soon the movie, and Beineix himself, came to be looked down on as a callow 1980s taste: the legwarmers of French cinema.
But that doesn’t do justice to his audacity, energy and exuberance, and to the movie that made his name in 1981: Diva, a film with a residual new wave ethos but with something less political. A young postman zooming around 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 cassette tape containing a confession which incriminates a top cop, which gets muddled up with his own illicit bootleg cassette of the diva singing the passionate soprano aria from Alfredo Catalani’s opera La Wally, Ebben? No andrò lontana, with its window-shattering high note.
Beineix single-handedly made this stunningly dramatic aria famous among non-opera fans (to the irritation of hardcore opera buffs) like a smash hit single from an otherwise little-known album. Undoubtedly, Diva inspired the 1987 portmanteau film Aria, in which directors including 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 flash and brash, but some felt it to be a glorified arthouse version of the pop videos that were becoming popular through MTV in the same era. Beineix was not, however, involved.
After Diva, Beineix made what both admirers and detractors felt was his key auteur piece, The Moon in the Gutter, starring Nastassja Kinski as a wealthy, predatory woman whose destiny collides with a smouldering dock-worker played by Gérard Depardieu. His fans stubbornly insisted this was Beineix’s brilliantly playful, colourful, visually creative French spin on the American noir genre. The naysayers said it was unendurably pretentious and preposterous; Beineix was deeply hurt to be booed at its Cannes premiere.
But, last year at Cannes, I thought of The Moon in the Gutter as the festivalgoers were going wild for Leos Carax’s film Annette, his indulgent, madly ambitious musical fantasia composed by Sparks and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Who can possibly doubt that Carax was influenced by Beineix’s anti-puritan flourish? Both Carax and Luc Besson owed a huge amount to Beineix, although it was Beineix’s sad fate to have neither Besson’s enduring commercial clout nor Carax’s highbrow reputation.
In the 90s, Beineix’s star waned, perhaps due to his characteristically heartfelt but inauspicious movie IP5: The Island of the Pachyderms, which was coolly received critically and in which his iconic star Yves Montand unfortunately died immediately after filming his character’s death.
Beineix was often said to be style over substance. But is that fair? He had just about as much substance as any working director of his time, but a lot more style, and in fact a sensuous love of style. His Diva and Betty Blue deserve to be known as more than fashion accessories: they were vivid, vibrant movie-making. And amazing to think of Altman, Godard, Jarman et al effectively bowing the knee to Beineix in that Aria collection.