The Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Royal S. Brown
A set of six DVDs, including The Moon in the Gutter (color, 137 min., 1983), Betty Blue (color, 185 min., 1986), Roselyne and the Lions (color, 170 min., 1989), IP5: L’île aux pachydermes, (color, 115 min., 1992), Mortel transfer (color, 122 min., 2001), and “Documentaries and Short.” A Cinema Libre release.
The career of French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix (pronounced baynex), who was born in Paris in 1946, has not been an easy read. As of 1971 he began working in the cinema in various assistant director positions, and in 1977 cowrote and directed a short (under fifteen minutes) narrative film, Le Chien de Monsieur Michel (Monsieur Michel’s Dog), which is included in this set and about which I will have more to say below. Then, in 1981, Beineix directed and cowrote his first full-length feature, Diva, which initially met with a disastrous reception by the French critics. Given new life at the 1982 Toronto Film Festival, Diva went on to set the standard for a kind of hyperesthetic style often dubbed the cinéma du look, and today it remains the film most associated with Beineix’s name.
In 1983 Beineix cowrote and directed La Lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter), based on the 1953 novel of the same title by American pulp-fiction writer David Goodis, whose work has inspired a number of films, including Dark Passage (1947), François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Samuel Fuller’s Street of No Return (1989). With its over-the-top, studied artificiality The Moon in the Gutter was mercilessly savaged both by the critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and this time there was no Toronto Film Festival to save it. In 1986 Beneix got back on his artistic feet with his 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel. Although far from universally admired, the film was Oscar nominated in the Best Foreign Film category, and it has become the director’s second most popular work. Following Betty Blue, however, Beineix has become all but invisible outside of his native France. His next three narrative features—Roselyne et les lions (Roselyne and the Lions, 1989), IP5: L’île aux pachydermes (1992), and Mortel Transfer (best translated as Mortal Transference, 2001)—have had almost no theatrical screenings in this country or anywhere else outside of France, and this is the first time they have appeared on DVD. Beineix does, however, have his own production company (Cargo Films), and has written an 835-page memoir entitled Les Chantiers de la gloire (literally the construction sites of glory) that covers his career only through The Moon in the Gutter. A second volume appears to be in the works.
The present six-DVD “Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection” is a pared down version of the twelve-DVD set available in France, which offers at least one additional film and a lot more extras. Most importantly, however, the French set offers what appears to be a new transfer of Diva, a film tragically missing from the American collection. The huge loss of Diva from the American set, apparently due to rights problems, is all the more painful given the mediocre quality of the Anchor Bay DVD of the film released in this country in 2001, and given the basically horrendous quality, both audio and visual, of the Lions Gate DVD that came out in 2008. Diva, a masterpiece not just of thecinéma du look but also of what could be called the cinéma du listen, deserves the best possible transfer, and no Jean-Jacques Beineix set can be called close to complete without it.
That said, I find myself extremely happy, for various reasons, to have access, on very good DVD transfers, to the five feature films and Le Chien de Monsieur Michel offered in this Cinema Libre set. For starters, screening all of these films within a reasonably short period of time (and I am quite well acquainted with Diva) I became aware of three major Beineix characteristics that show up in different degrees in his oeuvre. There is, of course, the visual style, the “look.” While much of the French cinema beforeDiva prided itself on the gritty realism of its photography and settings, Diva and the Beineix films that follow thrive in diverse ways, as we shall see, on artificiality. Photographically, for instance, there are the hyperreal compositions and lighting that often deserve the designation “still life” and that stop the action cold, inviting the viewer to admire moments of visual beauty inserted against the grain of the narrative. But in solid contrast to the extreme estheticism of his style, Beineix turns out to be, in film after film, the poet of the working class, even of the under classes. This becomes immediately evident in the director’s first effort, Le Chien de Monsieur Michel, which runs under fifteen minutes. In this short that has none of the style that will later become Beineix’s trademark, we first see Monsieur Michel (Yves Alphonso) asking a butcher for some scraps to give his dog. We quickly discover, however, that Monsieur Michel has no dog, and that, in his run-down apartment where he does electrical repairs for fellow tenants who pay him late, if at all, he fries up the scraps for his own consumption. An ironic turn of events leads to an equally ironic conclusion, including the priceless freeze frame that closes the film.
The main character of Diva, I remind the readers, is a young postal employee who delivers mail and social-security checks on his moped. Gérard, the hero of The Moon in the Gutter, is a dockworker who lives in a run-down apartment in what is supposed to be Marseilles with his alcoholic brother (Dominique Pinon), a fairly sluttish girlfriend (Victoria Abril), his father, and his black stepmother (Bertice Reading). In the role of Gérard, the at-the-time omnipresent Gérard Depardieu, a burly actor generally seen wearing T-shirts in the film, totally looks the part. Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade), the male protagonist of Betty Blue, starts off the film as a handyman at a beach resort and then moves around France, working at various jobs as he tries, unsuccessfully, to keep his twenty-year-old girlfriend Betty (Béatrice Dalle) from falling into insanity.Roselyne et les lions features Thierry (Gérard Sandoz), a high-school dropout who meets a beautiful, young apprentice lion tamer named Roselyne (Isabelle Pasco). The two travel around the country working at various circus jobs until they end up running the lion show at a huge circus in Berlin. The film loosely documents the life experiences of Thierry Le Portier, an animal trainer who worked with the film’s lions and tigers, and who collaborated on the screenplay.
IP5: L’île aux pachydermes (the IP5 apparently combines the initials of Isabelle Pasco, Beineix’s girlfriend at the time, while also indicating that this is the director’s fifth feature) starts off with a young, white tagueur (graffiti artist) named Tony (Olivier Martinez) doing what he does best as he is accompanied by a preteen black youth named Jockey (Sekkou Sall) enthusiastically performing, solo, a hip hop song. Forced to run an errand into the provinces by a band of skinheads, Tony and Jockey change course to Toulouse in pursuit of Tony’s unrequited love. In the middle of the woods they run across an old man (Yves Montand, who died on the last day of principal photography) who has escaped from a mental institution but who is apparently psychic and has a kind of mystical bond with nature. At one point he appears to walk on water. As forMortel transfer (the title, which refers to a psychotherapeutic phenomenon, best translates as Mortal Transference rather than Transfer), here Beineix takes us into the much more comfortable world of a well-off psychiatrist (Jean-Hughes Anglade, in his second Beineix film). Unfortunately for that well-off psychiatrist, however, he falls asleep during a session with a wealthy, beautiful blonde named Olga (Hélène de Fougerolles), a heavily masochistic kleptomaniac. When the psychiatrist wakes up, he discovers that the beautiful masochistic blonde has been strangled to death. Even here, however, Beineix introduces into Mortel transfer a totally incongruous character named Erostrate (Miki Manojlovic), a street person who may be homeless as well, and who serves as a kind of Greek chorus, among other things.
Then there’s the third major characteristic, which in a word can be labeled as “sex.” Ah, but this is not your garden-variety love-to-lovemaking (or vice versa) sexuality. It’s the kind of stuff that ends up on the psychiatrist’s couch, which in fact it does in Mortel transfer. A major part of Diva, for instance, is about fetishism: not only is the young postman obsessed with an opera singer probably ten years older than he is, he steals one of her gowns and then has a prostitute put it on as part of her services rendered. Further, Beineix may be one of the first to make the connection between pirate recordings and sexual fetishism… and beyond. There is also the little matter of pedophilia in the character of the forty-year-old Zen Buddhist who lives with a fourteen-year-old Vietnamese girl (actress Thuy An Luu was in fact fourteen when she signed on for the film) who takes nude photographs of herself. And let’s not forget the prostitution ring run by the chief of police. In The Moon in the Gutter things just get kinkier and kinkier. Here, the generating incident is the rape and subsequent suicide of Gérard’s sister, presented in a hyperstylized sequence that opens the movie. Obsessed with the crime and with his dead sister, the lower-class Gérard finds something of a replacement for her in the person of Loretta (Nastassja Kinski), an upper-class woman who drives around in a bright red Ferrari convertible, and who lives in a mansion with her brother Newton Channing (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) in what is hinted at as an incestuous relationship. Near the end of the film Gérard has a nightmare that takes place in a morgue, where a nude corpse with a cut throat that could be his sister turns out to be Loretta, whose nude body he has been lightly caressing as the music track plays the slightly morbid, highly neoromantic love theme (if you can call it that) by Gabriel Yared. Necrophilic incest, anyone?
What can be said, mon Dieu, about Betty Blue…? To my knowledge there has never been a mainstream, commercial film, much less one nominated for an Oscar, that has as much nudity, male as well as female, as Betty Blue (the original French title could be translated as Body Heat in the Morning). Throughout much of the movie the thirty-year-old Zorg and the twenty-year-old Betty (Béatrice Dalle, starring in her first film) appear in various states of undress, sometimes casually, often as a prelude to sex, about as often as they appear dressed. The film’s opening sequence features a graphic and extended sex scene between the two lovers (Beineix, in his audio commentary, claims not to know whether the actors were “really” making it) that, from where I sit, puts Betty Blue just this side of an NC-17 rating. Maybe the reproduction of the Mona Lisa on the wall above the copulating couple somehow mitigates the steaminess of it all. All of this might seem like perfectly normal sexual and amorous behavior on the part of two young, red-blooded French persons were it not for one large problem: from the outset Betty, in a perfectly realized performance from Dalle, comes across as a highly unstable person with a violent temper that is triggered whenever she perceives that somebody is impinging on her free spirit, whether a pizzeria patron whom she stabs with a fork when she complains about the service Betty has provided, or a book editor whose face she slashes because he has thoroughly dissed the manuscript of Zorg’s novel, which she has painstakingly typed (yes, typed!) from the handwritten copy. When the couple moves to a town (Marvejols) in south-central France, where they improbably run a piano store for a Parisian friend of theirs, Betty sinks even more rapidly into a form of hysterical madness that leads Zorg on two occasions (the first not included in the two-hour version; see below) to dress up like a woman to disguise himself in two very different and desperate attempts to help the woman for whom he has an obsessive love. It is as if Zorg must exorcize the violent woman within him by projecting her onto Betty. This, in turn, appears to drain Betty of her life force.
In light of the films that preceded them, both Roselyne and the Lions and IP5 seem absolutely chaste. To be sure, there is a love affair between Thierry and Roselyne that justifies a small amount of female frontal nudity, and the German circus where the two end up basically sells the lion-taming show on the image of Roselyne’s almost totally exposed derrière. And, to be sure, Tony, in IP5, is so obsessed with Gloria (Géraldine Pailhas), the replacement nurse who treats his father, who has fallen into an alcoholic coma, that he becomes something of a stalker, particularly in the beginning. But it takes Mortel transfer to get the full brunt, and then some, of Beineix’s sexual obsessions back in gear. The whole film can be seen as a sadoerotic, necrophilic fantasy not only on the part of the psychiatrist but, as it turns out, on the part of the psychiatrist’s psychiatrist (Robert Hirsch). Let’s start with the fact that Michel Durand, the psychiatrist, does not call the police as soon as he discovers the body of his beautiful but quite dead patient (a role that poor Hélène de Fougerolles must play throughout much of the remainder of the film!). A long shot from the point of view of Durand’s oriental housekeeper (Mai Li) makes the psychiatrist’s frantic efforts to revive his strangled patient with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation look ever so much as if he is having sex with the deceased (this is but the first of many examples of a kind of black humor that runs throughout Mortel transfer). Durand then keeps the body in his apartment for several days, hiding it under the couch where his patients lie for treatment. When he finally gets the body to a cemetery he runs across a body builder who is fucking an inflatable female doll on top of a tomb. On the way back he passes and is apparently attracted by a prostitute played by Fougerolles. He then has a nightmare presented as a montage sequence in which he is alternately fucking Olga, strangling her, and watching (as a young child) his parents having sex, ultimately scaring the shit out of his reasonably normal girlfriend, significantly named Hélène (Valentina Sauca), who gets the classic Beineix full-frontal nudity treatment. I could go on….
I offer the following additional comments on the Beineix films in the “Collection”:
1) The Moon in the Gutter, although based on a piece of American pulp fiction, has so little in terms of what one could consider a coherent narrative, and is filled from beginning to end with such over-the-top artifice, that it could almost be considered an exercise de style. Shot between Fellini and Leone on the huge sets of Italy’s Cinecittà, the various buildings and settings of The Moon in the Gutter’s “port from nowhere” (as a voice-over describes it at the film’s outset) look as if they had been hand colored from a black-and-white Hollywood film noir. And the story comes across so solidly as Gérard’s necrophilic-incestuous fantasies that, when he and Loretta drive off to get “married,” the cathedral where the ceremony takes place sits atop a hill above the water ever so much like a fairy-tale castle (see Image 1). As the late novelist/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet put it in talking about The Moon in the Gutter, one of the rare films from his era for which he had kind words, “It’s quite obvious that, at each moment,[Beineix is] putting together images that are stereotypes like that, stereotypes from our culture.” Another element that adds to The Moon in the Gutter’s over-the-top style is the heavy postromanticism of the mostly synthesizer musical score by Lebanese-born Gabriel Yared. From the first second Loretta appears onscreen, Yared’s slow waltz becomes the character’s double with such overripe force that the morbidity that infuses her and Gérard’s relationship can never be in doubt.
2) Gabriel Yared also composed the score for Betty Blue, a score that is so haunting and so tragic in its ultimate sadness that it occupies a major place in my pantheon of great film music. Although, like the score for The Moon in the Gutter, much of Betty Blue’s score is for synthesizer, the theme for Betty, in its full form, is played as a plaintive saxophone solo. Yared does little to modify this theme, which stands both as the idealized presence of Betty and her rather strange beauty, even as she crumbles into madness, as well as a reminder of the many demons that haunt her. Interestingly, all of the score’s important themes make their way in one manner or the other into the film as source music. Betty and Zorg, for instance, play what I would call the “Road Theme” as a duet in the piano store, while the late-blooming theme for Betty’s madness gets a piano performance, again in the store, as a virtuosic rhapsody from a young prodigy. I see this as one indication of a strong element of self-reflectivity in Betty Blue. Keep in mind that we never get the slightest indication of the content of Zorg’s novel, handwritten over what looks like a dozen hardcover notebooks before he ever met Betty. It is Betty who rescues Zorg’s creativity, types it up, and submits it to a large number of publishers. But it is only after Betty is lying catatonic in a hospital that Zorg receives an offer from a publisher. One is reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” in which a woman being painted by her husband dies at the exact moment the oval portrait is completed. Could it be that the title of Zorg’s novel is Betty Blue…? At any rate, by the end of the picture he’s working on a second novel with the help of a white cat who speaks with Betty’s voice…. The version of Betty Blue presented in this collection is, by the way, a director’s cut that runs an hour longer than the two-hour version that was up for consideration for a “Best Foreign Film” Oscar. Although Diva is the film most often associated with Jean-Jacques Beineix, I consider the crushingly sad, ultimately tragic Betty Blue as his masterpiece.
3) Roselyne et les lions is likewise presented in a director’s cut that runs close to an hour longer than the two-hour theatrical release version. It is somewhat difficult to figure how a director who pretty much invented the “cinéma du look” and whose narratives visited many of the darkest corners of human sexuality could come out with such a psychologically bland and, for the most part, stylistically uninteresting film as Roselyne. The story does pick up as it goes along, and it’s fun to watch the animals, that is, if you’re into gorgeous jungle beasts whose only moments outside of minuscule cages come when they’re performing stupid human tricks…. As a composer Reinhardt Wagner, in spite of his name, is absolutely no match for Gabriel Yared. And why in the world does Beineix allow a circus song amateurishly performed near the film’s opening to the tune of the triumphal march from Aida by a huge black woman go on for an interminable three minutes? I do see a bit of self-reflectivity here. Although Roselyne starts off as his mentor, Thierry, once he has gotten the hang of lion taming, inexplicably acts very much the tyrant when he gets in the performing cage with his girlfriend. From what I gather, this mirrors Beineix’s behavior on the set. And it would appear that Thierry’s rather weird high-school English teacher (Philippe Clévenot) starts, around midway through the film, to write a novel about the young animal tamers. But, honestly, I just don’t see the point.
4) One could pretty much say the same about IP5 if it weren’t for the character of the old man, poignantly incarnated by Yves Montand, who hugs trees, has healing powers, and is in search of a mythical “Isle of the Pachyderms” as well as a lost love. A much blander Gabriel Yared returns to provide IP5 with its score, which inexplicably includes, towards the film’s end, an extended and rather unoriginal bolero.
5) Perhaps because, on the heels of two original screenplays, Beineix adapted a novel by a former college professor with a very dark vision of human psychology and sexuality, Mortel transfer works somewhat better than its two predecessors. And it certainly offers more than its share of striking visuals, particularly in the dream sequences (see Image 2; there is also a nice rendering of the vision of Freud’s Wolf Man), but also in the oneiric tableaux of a snowy Paris. Still, I feel that the film would have worked considerably better if Beineix had allowed the story’s darkness to speak in a full voice, rather than mitigating it with a good deal of forced humor. Anglade in particular is much too buffoonish as he deals with the uninvited guest of a corpse.
6) A sixth DVD offers three little-known Beineix films, starting with Le Chien de Monsieur Michel (see above). Locked-in Syndrome, a.k.a. Assigné à résidence, a half-hour episode shot in 1997 for a British TV series, is a documentary about the last year-and-a-half in the life Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was struck down and almost totally paralyzed by a brain-stem stroke in 1995, but who was able, by blinking his left eye in response to letters proposed by a woman with saintly patience named Claude Mendibil, to put together a memoir entitled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, made into a film by Julian Schnabel in 2007. The film consists mainly of a series of episodes that took place during Bauby’s hospitalization, and does not identify any of the infinitely patient people who worked with him, a mistake, in my opinion, particularly in the case of Ms. Mendibil. As for Otaku, a feature-length documentary codirected by Jackie Bastide with Beineix in 1994, I find this one of the most depressing films I’ve ever watched. The Japanese word “otaku” refers to a subculture among mostly mother-fixated young men who live mostly in a virtual world of videos and collected objects. Among the most disturbing of these objects are small dolls, many of them in soft-core poses, made from photographs of scantily clad high-school girls. One of the young men actually says to the camera, “There’s a purity about schoolgirls that women don’t have.” Groan. The film goes through a number of rather poorly photographed variations, with horrible music, on the otaku theme, including a bondage game in which women also participate. Again I say, groan. Of course, there is a certain similarity between the otaku and the young postman from Diva….
7) In general, the transfers here are quite watchable without being as exciting as they should be, given Beineix’s style. The colors one remembers as bold and striking are somewhat less so here, and the focus is rather soft where it should be razor sharp. I find myself wondering why all of the films in the French set have an audio commentary by Beineix, while the only one in this set to have such a commentary is Betty Blue. Each feature-film DVD also offers fragments of an interview with Beneix done by the publisher of MovieMaker magazine, Tim Rhys, who asks some of the dumbest questions I have ever heard in this sort of context. Beineix’s proclivity for making pronouncements also wears rather thin. Many of the other extras included in the French set, including various “making of” featurettes, have not made it to the American collection. The one exception is Le Grand cirque (The Big Circus), filmed with absolutely no commentary by Bruno Delbonnel during the shooting of Roselyne et les Lions.
Royal S. Brown is a professor in the City University of New York. He is the author of three books, along with numerous articles and reviews. He is currently preparing a book of film theory entitled Images of Images: Lacan in Literature and Film.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 2