Wednesday 19 January 2022

In memoriam: Jean-Jacques Beineix (Telegraph 17/01/22)

Jean-Jacques Beineix, who has died aged 75, was an extravagant if sometimes exasperating writer-director who bequeathed recent French cinema several of its most indelible images. A key figure in what became known as the cinéma du look, a heavily stylised form of film-making that ported the sheeny aesthetic of advertising into the cinematic mainstream, he enjoyed two substantial successes with Diva (1981) and Betty Blue (1986).

Diva was ready-made for cult status, a propulsive urban runaround involving postmen, hitmen and a touring American soprano that generated dismissive reviews at home before being embraced overseas. “Every shot seems designed to delight the audience,” raved Pauline Kael. The film played in repertory for months – often in midnight-movie slots – eventually earning a Bafta nomination for Best Foreign Film. A chastened French Academy handed it four César awards, including Best First Film.

Beineix’s detractors soon retaliated: The Moon in the Gutter (1983), torn from novelist David Goodis’s dockside noir, provoked loud boos at Cannes. Yet Betty Blue, an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel 37° 2 le matin about the amour fou between a beach-house painter (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and a troubled young woman (Béatrice Dalle), was a phenomenon. Where its predecessor was murky and airless, the new film was all sun-kissed, voluptuous flesh; its unabashed couplings prompted much the same scurrilous (and unfounded) gossip that had dogged Don’t Look Now.

The critical response was measured, weighing the film’s heady passion against the relentless maleness of its gaze. Roger Ebert dismissed it as “a movie about Béatrice Dalle’s boobs and behind… everything else is just what happens in between the scenes where she displays them.” Yet it became a huge hit and a defining artefact of its moment. Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film, it made an icon out of Dalle, the film’s sultry poster becoming a fixture on the walls of cinephile bedsits worldwide.

It was also the beginning of the end. Where his compatriot Luc Besson took the cinéma du look to new commercial heights with The Big Blue (1988) and Nikita (1989), Beineix struggled to match his earlier triumphs. The circus-set Roselyne and the Lions (1989) seemed twee set against Betty Blue’s full-bodied swooning, although it handed Beineix a new muse (and briefly lover) in the model-turned-actress Isabelle Pasco.

Named in part after her, the road movie IP5 (1992) was sturdier – Beineix declared it a personal favourite – but a media furore broke out when its veteran star Yves Montand suffered a fatal coronary days after completing reshoots. Beineix felt personally blamed: “The press made a connection between his death and the film, almost implying that the film had killed him, so it had bad press literally almost before it was finished.”

A self-confessed misanthrope, Beineix became only more irascible around journalists, bringing his own recording equipment to interviews in which he vented his mounting frustrations and refused to kneel before what he called “the altar of Cahiers du Cinéma”: “France is a very strange country… In America, Diva is taught in universities. In France, you’re told not to like it.”

He turned down offers to direct Alien Resurrection (1997) and The Avengers (1998), instead clinging to the hope that he might someday restore The Moon in the Gutter to his original vision. But Studio Gaumont had destroyed everything removed from the theatrical cut, only compounding his sense that the industry was set against him: “The hurt is there. The fact I am finished today started there.”

He was born on October 8 1946, the son of an insurance company director, Robert Beineix, and Madeleine, née Maréchal. His early years were marked by the after-effects of war, as he described in his 2006 memoir Les Chantiers de la Gloire: “I stepped out on to a destroyed continent, into a country and a family in mourning. I have a vague memory of shrouded women lying on black marble tombs and brimming over with tears. It seems to me that I became aware of death before I did life.”

A keen cinema-goer, he nevertheless studied medicine before switching his attentions to film. He failed the entrance exam for the state film school IDHEC but landed a job as a runner on the television series Les Saintes chéries (1965-70) and worked as an assistant director to the likes of Claude Berri and René Clément through the 1970s.

He was an assistant director on Jerry Lewis’s notorious, long-suppressed Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried (1972), and made his directorial debut with Le Chien de Monsieur Michel (1977), which earned a César nomination for Best Short Film.

After the extremes of his 1980s work, Beineix began to reinvent himself in the field of TV documentaries. He won praise for his Aids awareness spot Le Sida ne passera pas par moi (1987) and for Otaku (1994), a study of Japanese subcultures. (He was a lifelong enthusiast of manga strips, writing the Vampires in Paris series in 2006.)

Yet the conspicuous failure of the self-funded, sub-Hitchcockian thriller Mortel Transfert (2001) was a heavy personal and financial blow, and left producers nervy about giving him further chances. His final credit, Les Gaulois au-delà du mythe (2013), was a well-received yet wholly self-effacing ARTE documentary on recent developments in French archaeology.

Deprived of the toys cinema had afforded him, he made a late-life venture into literature. His 2020 debut novel Toboggan drew enthusiastic responses, many noting echoes of Betty Blue in its description of a doomed relationship between a young woman and an older man. But he could just as often be found amusing himself with his iPhone: “It’s sort of like my dope, my painkiller. I take pictures. I know that the picture is the beginning of a film.”

Jean-Jacques Beineix is survived by his wife Agnès and daughter Frida.

Jean-Jacques Beineix, born October 8 1946, died January 13 2022.

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