Back in the 1980s Jean-Jacques Beineix was one of the coolest names in cinema following the success of Diva, a thriller that offered up a recipe of (almost in the words of Ian Dury) sex and drugs… and opera. The French director’s films led a short-lived movement called Cinema du Look – the name of which pretty much sums them up. Super-slick, they felt more like commercials or pop videos than conventional feature films, even though the director’s cut of Beineix’s erotic drama Betty Blue is over three hours long.
Diva and Betty Blue wowed young arthouse audiences and the posters provided ready company for Che Guevara on a thousand student walls. Many critics, however, remained unimpressed, generally preferring a little more substance to their diet.
Early French reviews of Diva, Beineix’s 1981 debut, were so bad that they almost ended his career as a director before it had begun. His producers were reluctant to submit it to festivals. But Beineix persuaded them there was nothing to lose. It received a much more favourable response at the Toronto Film Festival – it was different, it was talked about and people wanted to see it. Diva became one of the highest-grossing foreign-language films ever in the US. Beineix even drew comparisons with Orson Welles. And it became the film that launched Cinema du Look.
While fellow Cinema du Looker Luc Besson went on to make starry, big-budget movies, Beineix only ever directed a handful of feature films. Hollywood deals stalled a nd by the beginning of this century he was back in France, working on a corporate video for a scientific research organisation. His last film of note was more than 30 years ago.
He was born in Paris in 1946. His father worked in insurance. Beineix’s original intention was to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school, in the hope of pursuing a career in film. He failed to get into film school, but gained experience working as an assistant director in film and television throughout the 1970s.
He worked with the famous French director Claude Berri and was second assistant director on The Day the Clown Cried, a legendary “Holocaust comedy”, written, directed and starring Jerry Lewis, who was lionised in France. It was never released.
Beineix’s only credit as a writer or director before Diva was on a 14-minute film called Le Chien de Monsieur Michel. It got him noticed when it won a prize at the Trouville Festival and was nominated for a Cesar, France’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Diva was based on a book by Daniel Odier, the French novelist and poet who also wrote extensively on Buddhism. Beineix adapted it himself, working with co-writer Jean Van Hamme. It revolves around a Parisian postman’s bootleg tape of an opera performance by a singer who has consistently refused to be recorded.
His tape gets mixed up with that of a hooker incriminating a senior police officer in prosti tution and drugs, and the fan finds himself pursued by the police and gangsters who want the prostitute’s tape and by two Taiwanese men desperate for the opera recording.
Beineix faced scepticism right from the outset. He approached singer Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez to play the opera diva. “I was reading murder, prostitution and drugs, and I wanted nothing to do with it,” she said. But she was persuaded by Beineix’s vision of the finished film. “I realised it was actually light, like a Disney treatment of a Hitchcock film.”
It sounds like some sort of low brow farce, but Diva was delivered with enormous confidence and panache. Crowds flocked to film theatres. It was not just Beineix who was hip, there was suddenly a new audience for opera music – much to the disgust of purists, of course.
Following the success of Diva, Beineix was able to secure Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski to star in his second feature, The Moon in the Gutter. She played a photographer and he was a docker she meets. Depardieu’s character’s sister committed suicide after being raped and he visits the scene of the crime every night, hoping one day to solve and avenge the crime.
The Moon in the Gutter failed to build on the success of Diva, but Beineix scored again with his third feature Betty Blue, starring the young newcomer Beatrice Dalle, who subsequently complained about her treatment during the filming of a lengthy sex scene, though the scene itself probably helped generate interest in the movie.
The Washington Post dubbed Betty Blue “Oedipus Sex” and called Beineix “a strange kind of idiot savant – all aesthetic sense and no brains”. But the review actually concluded that t he film was “an extraordinarily sensual movie with its own silly integrity”.
It focuses on the relationship between an aspiring novelist and his volatile girlfriend. Tossing insanity and murder into the mix, it remains an uncomfortable watch. It was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign-language film, but lost out to an obscure Dutch film.
Beineix’s fourth feature, Roselyne and the L ions , came out in 1989 and excited little interest. His moment appeared to have passed. He made a documentary called Locked-In Syndrome, about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the journalist who had a stroke and communicated by blinking, but he turned down the chance to direct a dramatised version.
Under the title The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and directed by Julian Schnabel, it proved a major success on its release in 2007, while Beineix’s successes remain confined to a single decade. Nevertheless, he was an essential cultural experience for a generation that was young in the 1980s.
Beineix is survived by his wife and one daughter.
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