In the 1980s, Jean-Jacques Beineix was one of the coolest names in cinema after the success of Diva, a thriller that offered a recipe (almost in the words of Ian Dury) for sex and drugs… and opera. The French director’s films spearheaded a short-lived movement called Cinéma du Look – whose name pretty much sums them up. Super smooth, they looked 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 appealed to young arthouse audiences and the posters provided Che Guevara ready company on a thousand student walls. Many critics, however, remained indifferent, generally preferring a little more substance to their diet.
Early French reviews of Diva, Beineix’s 1981 debut, were so poor that they nearly ended his directing career before it had even begun. Its producers were reluctant to submit it to festivals. But Beineix persuaded them that there was nothing to lose. It got a much better reception 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 made in the United States. Beineix even drew comparisons with Orson Welles. And it became the film that launched Cinéma du Look.
While fellow Cinema du Looker Luc Besson continued to make star-studded big-budget films, Beineix made only a handful of feature films. Hollywood business stagnated and at the beginning of this century he was back in France, working on a corporate video for a scientific research organization. His last notable film 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, hoping to pursue a career in film. He failed to get into film school, but gained experience as an assistant director in film and television throughout the 1970s.
He worked with acclaimed French director Claude Berri and served as second assistant director on The Day the Clown Wept, a legendary “Holocaust comedy” written, directed and starring French-favorite Jerry Lewis. It was never published.
Beineix’s only credit as a writer or director before Diva was on a 14-minute film called Le Chien de Monsieur Michel. He rose to prominence when he won a prize at the Trouville Festival and was nominated for a César, the French equivalent of the Oscars.
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Diva was based on a book by Daniel Odier, the French novelist and poet who also wrote extensively on Buddhism. Beineix adapted it himself, in collaboration with co-screenwriter Jean Van Hamme. This is a clandestine tape by a Parisian postman of an opera performance by a singer who has always refused to be recorded.
Her tape gets confused with that of a prostitute incriminating a high-ranking police officer for prostitution and drugs, and the fan finds himself pursued by the police and gangsters who want the prostitute’s tape and by two Taiwanese desperate for the recording. of the opera.
Beineix faced skepticism from the start. He approached singer Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez to play the opera diva. “I was reading about murder and prostitution and drugs, and I didn’t want anything to do with it,” she said. But she was won over by Beineix’s vision for the finished film. “I realized it was actually lighthearted, like a Disney treatment of a Hitchcock movie.”
It looks like some sort of low brow prank, but Diva was delivered with tremendous confidence and panache. Crowds flocked to movie theaters. It wasn’t just Beineix that was hip, there was suddenly a new audience for opera music – much to the disgust of purists, of course.
After the success of Diva, Beineix managed to get Gérard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski to star in his second feature, The Moon in the Gutter. She played a photographer and he was a dock worker she met. Depardieu’s character’s sister committed suicide after being raped, and he visits the crime scene every night, hoping to one day solve and avenge the crime.
The Moon in the Gutter failed to build on the success of Diva, but Beineix scored again with her third feature Betty Blue, starring young newcomer Béatrice Dalle, who later complained about her treatment while filming a lengthy sex scene, although the scene itself likely helped spark interest in the film.
The Washington Post dubbed Betty Blue “Oedipus Sex” and called Beineix “a weird sort of silly savant—all aesthetic sense and no brains.” But the review actually concluded that the film was “an extraordinarily sensual film with its own silly integrity”.
It centers on the relationship between an aspiring novelist and his unstable girlfriend. Mixing madness and murder into the mix, it’s still an uncomfortable watch. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but lost to an obscure Dutch film.
Beineix’s fourth feature, Roselyne et les Lions, was released in 1989 to little interest. His moment seemed 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 make a dramatized version.
Under the title The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and directed by Julian Schnabel, it was a great success when it was released in 2007, while Beineix’s successes remained confined to a single decade. Nevertheless, it was an essential cultural experience for a young generation in the 1980s.
Beineix is survived by his wife and one daughter.
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