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When director Jean-Jacques Beineix packed his bags, fired his agent and left Hollywood for his native Paris, he vowed never to return. “Which was not true, because I’m back!” he says with an impish grin on a recent afternoon in Santa Monica. The year of departure was 2004, and Beineix had just spent two years at New Line Cinema developing an Amelia Earhart biopic, only to see the unrealized film slip through his fingers. It was a project he says he loved passionately — and where Beineix is concerned, most things spring from a well of deep passion. When the screenwriter hired by the studio turned in a script he found lacking, he asked the New Line bosses if he could take a crack at his own draft. He was told he could, but he wouldn’t be paid for it unless the movie went into production. “And I said, ‘I am too old to play this kind of game,’” he recalls. “‘Goodbye.’”
It isn’t the first time Beineix, who began his career as an assistant director to the likes of Claude Berri, René Clément and even Jerry Lewis (on the unreleased Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried), has come and gone from these shores. Three decades ago, flush with the success of his first feature film, the 1981 neon noir Diva, Beineix was courted aggressively by the major Hollywood studios. All seemed eager to make a movie with him, provided it was the movie they wanted him to make. “I had no idea about the way it works here,” Beineix recalls, as we sit in the audience section of the Promenade Playhouse, a small, live theater improbably nestled among the shops and restaurants on the Third Street Promenade. “I was extremely innocent. I thought that in America, especially in Hollywood, everything was possible. And I started to meet people who were very strange. None of them asked me, ‘Who are you?’ or ‘What do you like?’ No, they always had a script in a drawer, and I would read it and say, ‘But why me?’ I’ve been offered so many films. I have been offered twice a movie from Bret Easton Ellis — Less Than Zero and, years later, American Psycho. And always I said, ‘Why me? What can I do with this?’”
Beineix felt closer to the sensibility of another American writer, the pulp writer David Goodis, whose work had inspired François Truffaut’s Nouvelle Vague classic Shoot the Piano Player. So he returned to France, where he used his newfound clout to mount an ambitious adaptation of Goodis’ 1953 novel, The Moon in the Gutter, starring Gérard Depardieu as a stevedore who prowls the streets of a Marseille ghetto in search of his sister’s rapist while pining for a glamorous mystery woman (Nastassja Kinski) in a flaming red dress and matching sports car. It was followed by Betty Blue (1986), Beineix’s Oscar-nominated tale of amour fou between a frustrated writer named Zorg (Jean-Hughes Anglade) and the titular, tempestuous young woman (Béatrice Dalle) who literally walks into his life. This week, Betty Blue returns to the Nuart in a 187-minute director’s cut, which is more than an hour longer than the version originally released in U.S. theaters. It also serves as the unofficial kickoff for a summerlong Beineix revival that includes an American Cinematheque retrospective (July 2-8) and the release of a DVD box set containing nearly all of his short- and feature-length films, many of them available for the first time stateside.
If, 23 years later, Beineix still speaks of Betty Blue as his happiest professional experience, The Moon in the Gutter remains his most troubling. Filmed at considerable expense, on elaborate sets built at Italy’s Cinecittà Studios, the movie took a brutal lashing from the press and public (plus its own star, Depardieu, who dubbed it the “film in the gutter”) when it premiered at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. And yet, to see Moon today (it opens the Cinematheque retrospective on July 2) is to be reminded of its sheer audacity and to marvel at the curt dismissals. Rooted in a torrential performance by Depardieu at his most feral, it seems, in many ways, the ultimate expression of Beineix’s dominant personal and aesthetic concerns — an all-consuming work about people pushed to the brink by obsession and desire.
“You cannot understand Betty Blue without knowing about The Moon in the Gutter,” Beineix says, the wounds clearly still fresh. “Probably it was a movie where I lost my perspective of what the limits were. I was sincerely trying to do something. I went very far. I thought I had wings. Nevertheless, I was badly bashed in Cannes. It was very, very violent. It’s like you have been in a plane crash and survived. You will never, ever be the same.”
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