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.”
In a further blow, the film’s producer, French film studio Gaumont, destroyed the negatives to more than 90 minutes of additional scenes Beineix had hoped to someday use for a director’s cut — a loss he regards as the greatest of his career.
So Betty Blue initially feels like a scaling back, a work of compromise. Based on a novel by French cult author Philippe Djian, the tone of the movie is more naturalistic, the shooting done in real locations instead of studio sets. But by the time Betty strikes a match and sets Zorg’s house on fire for no reason other than her feeling that it’s time for them to move on, we know we are firmly back on planet Beineix. From there, it’s off to the races for a co-dependent screwball romance that culminates in self-mutilation, a cross-dressing stickup and a possible act of interspecies transmutation.
“This movie came like a fairy tale, like a comet from the skies,” says Beineix, who had read Djian’s book in manuscript form. “From the very beginning, I was in love with the characters and the story. A lot of people asked me, ‘How can you make a picture out of that?’ And I said, ‘How can I not?’ I thought it was funny. There were great lines, which were literature, because Philippe Djian is an author. But this literature I knew I could also put into dialogue, and from time to time I allowed myself to add some dialogue and some other original ideas.”
Beineix mentions the chili pot that boils in extreme close-up, “like a temple,” in one of the film’s final scenes, which is but one of the many inanimate objects that loom larger than life in his work. The young audiophile hero of Diva lives in a loft decorated with the crushed bodies of wrecked cars, which are photographed by Beineix as lustrously as if they were comely ingénues. In The Moon in the Gutter, an illuminated billboard beckons like a Gatsby-an beacon, “Try Another World” — which could be an invitation to Beineix’s entire filmography. At the time, the director was accused by some, as Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman) had been in the ’60s and ’70s, of polluting cinema with the language of commercial advertising. But, in fact, Beineix was among the first to respond in cinematic terms to a decade in which possessions were becoming as important as people, the line between commerce and art blurring past the point of no return. Together with the films of those French directors he most immediately influenced — among them, Leos Carax and Luc Besson — Beineix’s aesthetic was branded, not inappropriately, “cinema du look.”
“In a way, I just took advantage of what was in the air of the ’80s,” he says of his hybrid style, “which was the encounter of rock & roll and classic music, the encounter of publicity and daily life. The difference between a film like Diva and a commercial is that a commercial is using all the things you can have in a film, except that at the moment of happiness — the climax — they put the product; they use the emotion to sell something. A good moviemaker will never, ever do that, because the purpose is to sell an idea with the emotion. It leads you somewhere, but not to buy a product.”
At the center of Betty Blue is a tour de force performance by the wide-eyed, gap-toothed Dalle, a then-unknown model and Paris scene-maker whom Beineix cast on the basis of a roll of still photographs and a screen test. “It was a total gamble, and it was very crazy, because it almost made the film capsize before it was set up,” he says, noting that Isabelle Adjani and other high-profile French stars had expressed interest in the part. Like many Beineix characters before and after her, including Diva’s mysterious protector, Gorodish, and the dying old man played by Yves Montand in 1992’s IP5, Betty exudes an almost mystic quality. For all her impulsive, sometimes catastrophic behavior, she seems to experience life more vividly and sensually than us mere Zorgs, picking up vibrations, sensing hidden connections.
As Beineix sees it, “These characters are carried by a passion that brings them beyond the limits.” They are also, he allows, alter egos of a sort. “This is exactly the way I picture being a director,” he says. “That’s why I’ve never matched with the system here, because I’m so intense when I do a picture, I’m so dedicated, that slowly the people surrounding me become enemies — I see that they don’t believe, they have no faith. They try to reduce everything to some kind of a standard. They try to understand everything. But you do not explain what faith is. Either you believe or you don’t. I’m a believer.”
Beineix cites the characters of the two young lion tamers in his slight but charming 1989 film, Roselyne and the Lions, who are willing to die just to give the audience a good show, as “the archetype of what an artist should be.
“But as soon as you say that,” he adds, “immediately all the people in the studios think, ‘Oh my god, we are in trouble now. Over budget!’”
Perhaps fittingly for a director so intrigued by the tensions between opposing forces — man and woman, moon and gutter, live and Memorex — Beineix has by now experienced the full yin and yang of not one but two national film industries. Even Diva was a flop upon its initial French release, picking up steam only after hanging on in a single Parisian cinema for the better part of a year. (Beineix had to fight legendary producer Serge Silberman to submit the movie to the Toronto Film Festival, where it ultimately received a standing ovation, on its way to earning more than $6 million at the North American box office.) When Montand died of a coronary shortly after completing the grueling IP5 shoot, a series of unflattering articles in the French press blamed Beineix for causing the star’s death. Meanwhile, Beineix’s only fiction feature of the past 19 years, 2001’s neo-Hitchcockian thriller Mortal Transfer, failed to return its $7 million investment, $2 million of which came from the director’s own production company.
When I ask Beineix what he’d been up to during his long breaks, “recovering,” he says, only half-jokingly. In addition, he has directed a couple of TV documentaries — one of which, Locked-in Syndrome (1997), is a remarkable portrait of the paralyzed Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby in the midst of writing his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (and a welcome corrective to Julian Schnabel’s saccharine Hollywood biopic). He has also produced an elegiac essay film, Requiem for Billy the Kid (2006), about the myths of the American West; Allez, yallah! (2006), a feature-length documentary about the fight of Muslim women to be considered equal to men; and CosmicConnexion (2006), a television program for the French network ARTE, designed to be beamed into outer space for potential extraterrestrial audiences. And last year, he published a memoir, Les chantiers de la gloire, which, at 835 pages, is only the first of a planned four volumes.
Modesty, of course, has never been Beineix’s strong suit. Now 62, he still seems very much an enfant terrible, momentarily in retreat, perhaps, but ready to pounce, like one of the majestic cats of Roselyne and the Lions, as soon as the occasion calls for it. When he talks about his aborted Earhart movie, he does it so vividly that you can practically see the scenes playing out before your eyes, Earhart’s silver plane emerging from the hangar just as the first Hitler stamps are rolling off the presses in Germany. (“I wanted to show that an American woman is the last person who flew around a world that was going to collapse forever because of the Second World War,” he says.) And when he tells you that he’s seeking financing for an adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s The Demon, updated for today’s corporate American workplace, it’s enough to make a journalist flirt with becoming a film producer.
“Business should adapt to art, not the other way around,” says the eponymous opera soprano of Diva, who insists that audiences experience her performances in person rather than on concert albums. It’s the epitaph Beineix says he would choose for his own. “But you have to know, it was the beginning of my troubles,” he adds with another sly grin. “The producers wanted me to take out this line. I remember a terrible fight: ‘Jean-Jacques, please take this line out. You will have time to make statements, to talk.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m doing the film for this line.’ I knew then it was a declaration of war. Forever.”