Divas and Lions and Moons, Oh My!
By Alex Simon
The Noveulle Vague, or “French New Wave” was launched by a group of film critics and cinefiles who began France’s legendary Cahiers du Cinéma magazine in the 1950s. With Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in 1959, the movement was launched, emphasizing behavior over aesthetics, content over form, and pastiche of other film genres (particularly those born in the U.S., with a healthy dollop of Italian neorealism) over the more traditional narratives of French films from years past. Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda (see our interview with her below) Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette all fell under the spell of magazine co-founder and theorist Andre Bazin, laying the groundwork for a series of articles, monographs and critiques that formed the so-called “auteur theory,” (or more specifically “"La politique des auteurs" ("The policy of authors,” maintaining that the director is the true author of a film). Cahiers du Cinéma writers attacked the classic "literary" style of French Cinema, and forged a style uniquely their own, which would go on to influence several generations of filmmakers on both sides of the pond.
Then came the 1980s.
1981 marked the beginning of a “new” New Wave in France, with the opening of neophyte director Jean-Jacques Beineix’s romantic thriller Diva, a startling exploration of aesthetics over behavior, style over heavy plotting, and sheer visual panache using gaudy urban landscapes (neon, concrete, wet streets) that would not only go on to influence other French filmmakers like Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element), but American filmmakers like Michael Mann, whose Miami Vice aesthetic can be traced back to the groundbreaking visuals Beineix established with Diva, not to mention most of the music videos produced in the U.S. during the 1980s.
Born in Paris October 8, 1946, Jean-Jacques Beineix was a movie-crazed kid who initially took the more pragmatic route of attending medical school, but then gave into his passion of filmmaking, spending the next decade working as assistant director to some of the biggest names in French cinema: Claude Berri, René Clément, Claude Zidi and even Jerry Lewis. After Diva became a surprise international hit in ’81 (French critics initially wrote it off, but it went on to win four Cesar awards), Beineix faced the sophomore curse with his next feature, Moon in the Gutter (1983), a big-budget film noir starring Gerard Depardieu and Nastassia Kinksi which was excoriated by critics and ignored by audiences. Betty Blue (1986), detailing the doomed romance between a sweet-natured drifter (Jean-Hughes Anglade) and an mentally-unstable sexpot (Beatrice Dalle) restored Beineix’s reputation as a director to be reckoned with, earning a Best Foreign Film Oscar nod, as well as nine Cesar nominations, becoming a cult smash worldwide.
Turning toward more socially-conscious subjects in the ‘90s, Beineix made IP5: The Island of the Pachyderms, starring a young Olivier Martinez and acting legend Yves Montand, in his final film. In addition, Beineix has been a prolific documentary filmmaker, with the films Locked-In Syndrome, detailing the story of French Elle Editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s excruciating struggle to come back from a massive stroke (dramatized a decade later in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), as well as Otaku, a study of Japanese youth obsessed with the culture of toys, action figures and video games.
Betty Blue: The Director's Cut screened in New York and Los Angeles in June and July, respectively, followed by runs in Minneapolis July 24, Seattle August 7, Denver August 21, Boston, September 11, and Washington D.C. October 2. The Jean-Jacques Beineix Retrospective was held at The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles from July 2-July 8 to sold-out audiences.
All these titles (save for Diva, available on DVD from Lionsgate) arrive in separate releases from Cinema-Libre Studio between now and December 1st:
1. Locked-In Syndrome; Otaku; M. Michel's Dog, June 23
2. Roselyne and the Lions, July 14
3. IP5, August 18
4. Mortal Transfer, September 22
5. Moon in the Gutter, October 20
6. Betty Blue: The Director's Cut, November 17
7. The Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection Box Set, December 1
Enter to win all these titles here at The Hollywood Interview by clicking this link: http://cinemalibrestudio.com/icontact_images/beineixDVD.html
Jean-Jacques Beineix sat down with us at a seaside hotel recently to discuss his remarkable career as France’s most reluctant auteur. Here’s what followed:
Even though it’s not in the collection, why don’t we begin by talking about Diva, your first film? Looking back on it now, it strikes me as the first “’80s” film, in terms of the look and sensibility that you gave it. And this was before Michael Mann and other people infused their films with that look: a lot of neon, emphasis on the color palate, wet streets…Where does your visual sensibility come from?
Jean-Jacques Beineix: I think it came from surroundings, the times we were living in. I was surprised many times when I didn’t see that in films. The New Wave was more interested in the relationships between people, and not so much looking at the cities. I thought the cities reflected our landscape, so filming the landscape was also filming the people living in it. Our world was changing at that time. It started to move faster, due to mass travel, commodities, and means of communication, which were, by the way, very, very archaic compared with what we have nowadays. Nevertheless, in Diva, the story dealt with that, which is artist, fans, artistic integrity regarding the production, endless reproduction, piracy, and technologies. In fact, there’s a phrase in the film which triggered a lot of problems with the producers, who wanted me to cut the line, which goes “It is up to industry to adapt to art, and not art to adapt to industry.” It was naïve, maybe, but I still stick to that.
Trailer for the 2008 re-release of Diva.
Your documentary Otaku deals with some of these themes, as well, right?
Yes. I’d been going to Japan for many, many years. It struck me that this phenomenon was years ahead of its time regarding video games, individuals, networks, and consumerisation of action figures. It wasn’t just some “strange Japanese” cultural phenomenon. It was just they these young men set the pace, so to speak, for generations of young people in other cultures, including the United States and Europe. Japan has often been ahead of the game when it comes to popular culture. In Diva, Jules is collecting recordings and pirating recordings in his collection, just like all the kids now.
A lot of the subjects and themes in your films have been prescient, and people weren’t ready for them when the films were originally released.
That’s a bit of my problem. When you’re ahead, you’re not on time. (laughs)
There’s a great quote from the Bible, and I’m not a Christian…
But the Bible is a good book…
I’m not saying it’s not a good book; I was just prefacing my point by emphasizing the fact that I don’t believe and/or agree with everything the book has to say.
Okay, I see. Me too. (laughs)
The quote says, essentially, that a prophet is never recognized in his own time. Don’t you think it’s the job of an artist to be prophetic, to piss off the right people, and see things that others don’t, then you’re doing your job?
Yes, I agree. It’s true.
The cut of Betty Blue that’s included in this box set is an hour longer than the theatrical version. Why were you forced to make those cuts originally?
I was not forced, actually. I forced myself. To understand this, you have to be aware of the mentality at the time I made the film. As you said, I was always a bit ahead of things. When I did Diva, it was not an original work and I didn’t find the book that it was based on. I was hired by the producers to direct it. They wanted me to take it in one direction, a detective story, and I took in completely different direction. They wanted me to take out all the romantic scenes in Paris, they threatened me that if I didn’t take the title Diva off, they’d sue. They wanted the film to be called The Moppet, or My Boyfriend Jules. These are the kinds of things I escaped from. (laughs) They were very tough producers, Irene and Serge Silberman. They were not kids. He had the money, and she was smart. They dreamt of being producers in America, and had done half of the journey, coming from Poland and escaping the Nazis during the war. So he was powerful and tough, but I was very mean and tough myself at that time, and resisted the pressures. So when Diva was first released, it was a flop. Critically, it was destroyed. Nobody knows this. Specifically, the critics of the New Wave, were very tough on it. France is the worst place to be, for a French director.
I can see that, because it went against everything that the Nouvelle Vague was about, right?
No, not at all. What were the principals of the New Wave, if not to express yourself honestly? So I thought they would like it. Sometimes the films of the New Wave, or people like Antonioni, were extremely involved in aesthetics, colors, research. Those were the films I grew up with and learned from. Early Alain Resnais, like Last Year at Marienbad, were very beautiful and very strange. So anyway, it took a full year for Diva to escape from this situation of total oblivion, and it was in America that it was discovered. I had to fight the producer to bring the film to Toronto. I had wanted to bring the film to America first, but the two phrases I kept hearing were “How can we sell this in America?” and “Will this please an American audience?” The answer came from the audience in Toronto: they gave it a standing ovation! I had just landed, totally jet-lagged, and I walk into the theater and everyone is standing up and clapping. I thought I was in a dream, or in a nightmare.
Or in the wrong theater.
(laughs) Yes, exactly.
Gerard Depardieu in Moon in the Gutter.
Then the success of Diva allowed you to do Moon in the Gutter, which was excoriated by critics and audiences everywhere. I imagine that must’ve been quite a blow.
Yes, that was tough. I had wanted to go much farther with that film in terms of stylistics and playing with the medium. It was based on a novel by an American writer, David Goodis, who wrote film noir-type stories like Dark Passage and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. I thought I was doing something great. I filmed on a huge stage in Cinecitta between the sets of Sergio Leone, doing Once Upon a Time in America, and Fellini, who was shooting And the Ship Sails On. Now, it’s gotten a bit of recognition, which is better late than never, I suppose. But I went from feeling like a failure for an entire year with Diva, my first film, thinking it would be my last. Suddenly, it’s a success in America, and I’m a major director. Then I do Moon in the Gutter, I have money, ambitions, and stars. I shoot it in the most magical studio in the world. All of this is very heavy and was like this wonderful dream, where I was flying on the wings of victory, you know? And then, bang, bang, bang: I’m shot down. It was very scary.
Then you did Betty Blue. How did that come to you?
I was sent this novel by Philippe Dijan, still in galley proofs. It hadn’t yet been published. I read the book and loved it. I immediately optioned it, and made the movie, which was the easiest movie I’ve ever made. I adapted it along, in the south of France. But again, in the beginning, troubles, because I almost got caught in an endless series of lawsuits. The first producer I had was a Swiss guy who was very disloyal, so I tried to break away from him, and he tried to sue me using an old contract we had. It was treacherous, terrible. Finally, I won, but we had to give him a lot of money. Then once the film started filming, it was a straightforward march toward success, all over the world. It was nominated for ten Cesars (but only won for Best Poster), an Oscar, a Golden Globe. So when I started Betty Blue, I was hounded by failure, but wound up enjoying some success. But back to your question, about the film’s original length. My rough cut of Betty Blue was four hours long. I had been so traumatized by the experience of doing Moon in the Gutter, which I’d recut, and recut, I just decided to play it safe and cut it down to a “reasonable” length, which would serve the action, that would make the distributors happy and allow them to have one or two extra showings per day. It’s interesting, after I did the director’s cut of Betty Blue, I approached Gaumont and said that I’d like to do the same thing with Moon in the Gutter, because I thought I could improve the movie. They said no, because they’d destroyed everything: all the doubles, the negatives, all the footage that was excised from the final cut, is now gone. That was the worst thing in my career that has happened. It enrages me sometimes when I think about it, then it goes away, then it comes back. But I’m very happy with the three-hour cut of Betty Blue that you’ll see on DVD. I think it’s much better.
Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hughes Anglade in Betty Blue.
Betty Blue was your first road picture, which you’ve now made several of. What is it about that genre that fascinates you?
Well, it all started with Easy Rider. When I saw that film, I fell in love with the idea of the road picture and it was something that I’ve continued to explore.
What were some other films or filmmakers who have influenced you?
Oh, there are many. The New Wave. Kubrick I have total admiration for. I think he was one of the greatest masters of cinema. He succeeded in having an extraordinary vision of directing actors, using color, music, almost like a choreographer. In the meantime, his films are brilliant metaphors that do not age. But there are many others: French films like Children of Paradise, lots of films.
Sekkou Sall and Olivier Martinez in IP 5.
You came of age in France during the perfect time for film buffs because cinema in the late ‘60s, like everything else in France, just exploded, and allowed you to explore film on a much deeper level.
You know, I appreciate hearing that because so often I hear the contrary, especially from French critics.
But is it possible for the French critics to have objectivity about their own filmmakers? There are Americas who are revered in France, and despised here.
Yes, absolutely. Peter Greenaway is revered in France, but you talk about him in London, and you get mud in the face.
Jerry Lewis, on the set of his notorious, unseen film, The Day the Clown Cried.
Since we’re on the subject, we have to talk about Jerry Lewis. You worked as 2nd AD on his notorious, unseen film, The Day the Clown Cried, a purported comedy about a clown entertaining Jewish children in a WW II concentration camp. What was that like?
Yes, and I never saw the film. I was just the second assistant and it was an incredible fairy tale for me, to work with Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis, along with Louis de Funes—who, by the way, had a very similar career to Jerry Lewis. He was a huge comic in France, but never, ever until now, 20 years after his death, recognized as a great actor. But they both made me laugh as a child. Jerry Lewis did everything: he did stand-up. He could act. He could sing and dance. He’s a photographer. He’s a director. And his films, when you look at them, are extremely daring and inventive. So he was someone that I wanted to emulate, in a way. The cinematographer of the film, Edmond Richard, who had shot a film I worked on directed by Rene Clement, called Hope to Die, with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Aldo Ray and Robert Ryan—and let me tell you, meeting Aldo Ray and Robert Ryan was something!
Two of my favorite actors. What were they like?
Tough guys. Aldo was drinking, playing poker, and Robert Ryan was like in his films. He was huge, tough, built like iron and a face that looked like it was carved out of granite. Nice guy. He was quite ill at the time, in the final stages of the cancer that killed him, one or two years later. But he never complained, and was very professional.
Actor Robert Ryan, circa 1950s.
I still think the film Ryan did with Robert Wise, The Set-Up, is the best boxing picture ever made—and I don’t view Raging Bull as a boxing picture, by the way—largely because Ryan himself was a boxing champ. He won the championship of Dartmouth College.
Yes, and he was a Marine in WW II. They don’t really make actors like him anymore. He built his muscles through his life, not at the gym, you know what I’m saying? Slim and mean.
Lee Marvin is another actor like that. Are you a fan of Point Blank?
Oh yes, I love Lee Marvin and that is one of my favorite films. It deals with one of my great passions in life—cars. I try to have a different great car in every one of my films. Even if there are no cars, then there is a motorcycle. (laughs) It’s kind of an homage to a disappearing civilization.
Back to Jerry Lewis.
Yes, it was like I had been invited to the court of Queen Elizabeth. It felt like a real achievement. I tried to work as hard as possible, and be very speedy. Like the weather, you don’t wait for somebody to ask. The moment the director says “I would like to have a…” you know what needs and get it for him. The greatest moment on that set for me was, one day Jerry Lewis got really upset with his crew, and went off on them, saying “You’re all too lazy. You don’t work hard enough. There’s only one guy who understands!” And he pointed to me. I only worked on the film for 15 days, at the circus in Paris. I never heard a thing about it after. I knew it was bogged down in lawsuits after it was finished, but it was an important moment in my professional life. I worked with a lot of amazing people before I directed my first film. I was an assistant director for twelve years. It was a great training ground, watching those masters work. I have many great memories. I started making films very late, you know.
I know you originally went to medical school. When did you know you were a filmmaker?
Oh, very early. I’d always thought about it. I had my first camera at the age of 14 and was taking lots of pictures. Then I got a movie camera and was always filming, and it was usually very bad, because I didn’t know what to film, and still don’t. So now I take pictures with my IPhone every day. I have over a thousand pictures in this phone. Sometimes it provides me with my fix. It’s sort of like my dope, my pain killer. I take pictures. I know that the picture is the beginning of a film.
Let’s talk about IP 5, which is being released in this DVD set for the first time in the U.S. It was also Yves Montand’s last film.
I really love that film. It’s probably my favorite film. It didn’t get released in the States. I had the chance to have two films that were regarded as two of the best foreign films released in the last thirty years—Diva and Betty Blue. IP 5 had the chance to be released in the States by New Line, I think. The man in charge of buying the film was a guy called Ira Deutchman and he was the guy who picked up Diva for the U.S. But I think at that time, he got fired from New Line, and the distribution went with him. That was it. Even Mortal Transfer got a very good reception at The Seattle Film Festival. I thought it was going to be like Diva, and the audience loved it. But it never got a release here. I just don’t understand it.
Helene de Fougerolles in Mortal Transfer.
I love that film. I thought it was an homage to both Hitchcock and Brian De Palma.
Yes, you got it! I tried to sell it like that in France, but (the critics) were like “Oh no, come on…” So who knows, maybe it’s another one that people will decide they like in ten years. (laughs)
Let’s get back to IP 5. Tell us about Yves Montand.
Yves Montand was the easiest actor I ever worked with, and this was after I had the experience of working with Gerard Depardieu, who was the most difficult. But let’s be clear: Depardieu was difficult because he was drinking at the time. Otherwise, he’s a charming man and a great actor. He knows the camera like no other actor working today. I operate my own camera, so I know when an actor is at ease with the camera and understands it. Gerard is unbelievable. I didn’t find this again until I worked with Yves Montand. Yves Montand was, for me, like Jerry Lewis in the sense that he was part of my childhood. But I felt an even greater connection with him. Yves was a Communist, as were my grandparents. They were Communists until they reached the problem of faith, because they were Catholic. Montand was also a figure of the Resistance during the war. Plus he was a singer, an actor, a renaissance man, truly one of the greats. So, having him be in my film was a thrill. It was a way of joining my childhood and the present time. I initially didn’t think of Yves for the part. I thought of Jean-Pierre Marielle, who is a very interesting actor. He was not available and I knew that Yves Montand was in a stage of his career where he was looking to take risks. Few stars are capable of that. This was a man who epitomized the glamorous French lover in his heyday, and this was, for the most part, such a deglamorized part, except when he wore that tuxedo during the wedding scene, he was the Montand we know.
Yves Montand and Sekkou Sall in IP 5.
In many ways he was sort of like the French Robert Ryan, because he graduated to playing tough guys in the ‘60s and ‘70s in films by people like Jean-Pierre Melville. Yes, like The Red Circle, of course, and he also came from musical. So he was extremely consistent, professional and had an aptitude for the camera. Here is a funny story: when we started, we did so with the kids for the first week. He arrived the second week, dressed all in white, like the Yves Montand from the south (of France). He spent the time feeling things out: are the kids any good? Am I any good? Is this director any good? But he did so in such a charming way. He charmed everybody. Yves was the most charming man I’ve ever met. He would’ve charmed this chair, the cup, anything. Then we start the first scene with him, and he sees me on the camera, which few directors do, and many actors are not used to that. There is this famous triangular relation with actor, cameraman, and director. The director is seated behind his monitor and yells “action!” and “cut!” There was no monitor on my films, until now, because the cinematographer begged me on Mortal Transfer, so I had a small one. But anyway, once we started shooting, he relaxed into it, and it was the most delightful experience. I’ve never had an actor work harder for me than Yves did, and he was 72 years-old at the time we shot the film.
French actor Yves Montand, circa 1950s.
And then his death, shortly after he completed filming his part, overshadowed the film’s release, right?
He died two days after we did some reshoots, of the scene where he dies, ironically. The press made a connection between his death and the film, almost implying that the film killed him, so it had bad press literally almost before it was finished. Yves wasn’t there to defend me, or the film, so it was very tough. It’s important to know the difference between reality and fiction, however. When the two get confused, then you have a problem. One final story about Yves: most people referred to him as “Montand,” that’s how they addressed him. I called him “Yves” from the beginning right to the end of the shoot. I don’t know why he allowed me to do this, but I always felt sort of honored by it.
The last film we should talk about is The Locked-In Syndrome, your documentary on Jean-Dominique Bauby, which was dramatized in Julian Schnabel’s film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a decade later.
I had all but given up on cinema at that point and I really view that film as a sort of, what would you say, a restart button for me?
Reset button, yes. I was so frustrated by all the disappointments I’d had, plus I lost my mother and best friend to cancer and then was very badly hurt in a motorcycle accident. So it was not a happy period in my life, but when Jean-Dominique contacted me I knew this was something I had to do. I told him I was thinking about turning to writing and painting full-time, but he said I should use what he called my “extreme artistic sense for making films.” It was my first film in five years, since IP 5, and after my accident, when I was in my own way paralyzed and handicapped, I really identified with Bauby.
Jean-Dominique Bauby in the documentary Locked-In Syndrome.
How long did you spend with him?
Four months, and I had to discard over 40 hours of footage to make it into a 26 minute documentary.
What was the effect of spending all that time with him?
I stopped taking myself quite so seriously, that’s for sure. (laughs) He sent me a fax the night the film premiered on television. I waited by the machine in this state of total anxiety, waiting for his criticism. Bauby was a tough guy, and quite frankly, not the nicest guy before (his stroke). So I braced myself for the worst. I knew that it was the first time Jean-Dominique would see himself as others saw him, and that was bound to be a shock. But he was very complimentary, and quite kind in his commentary on the film.
Why didn’t you do the feature version a decade later?
What would be the point, to make the same film twice? They approached me, but I said no. And then they went ahead and (dramatized) a great deal of what was in my film anyway.
Over the years, many French films, and other films from foreign countries, have been remade here in the States. What are your thoughts on remakes and have you ever been approached to do an “Americanized” version of any of your films?
Look, it’s all about fashion. First it was remaking French films, then Australian, then Chinese. I was approached about doing an American version of Betty Blue, and even wrote the script for it. But I would only sell the rights for an outrageous amount of money, and that will never happen. The whole system is decadent and it stopped being about creativity long ago, and became about productivity. They look at the world market and they want product they can sell worldwide, period. Forget the story. Look at what’s happened to the automobile business here in the States. It looked healthy on the outside for so long, then it collapsed because it was completely wounded, in reality. It’s the same with Hollywood. Why is this industry, with the billions of dollars they have behind it, incapable of writing scripts? It’s proof that the whole system is corrupt; they need us filmmakers to generate product, but they don’t want the films we want to make to be shown. I go back to the line I mentioned from Diva: “It is up to industry to adapt to art, and not art to adapt to industry.” Will this ever happen? We’ll see.