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An Appreciation of Director Jean-Jacques Beineix (1946-2022)

By Laurence Lerman / New York City


Jean-Jacques Beineix
Jean-Jacques Beineix

If you caught any French films in arthouse movie theaters during the heady foreign import days of the 1980s, there’s a good chance you saw one by France’s Jean-Jacques Beiniex, who died on Thursday, January 14, following a long illness. The aesthetically-driven director of the foreign-films-of-the-moment Diva (1981) and Betty Blue (1986) was 75.


Following an apprenticeship with such French masters as Jean Becker and Claude Berri, Beineix burst onto the international scene in 1981 with Diva. Beineix’s debut feature was referred to at the time as the first entry in France’s post-New Wave cinéma du look movement, a cycle of films that briefly flourished in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. A dozen or so of the strain's exemplary films by enfants terribles Beineix, Luc Besson and Leox Carax all shared a slick, luxurious visual style and a loose focus on alienated, often-rebellious younger characters.


Diva indeed fits the bill with its very cool tale of a young opera-loving courier (Frédéric Andréi) and his encounters with a popular soprano (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), a hooker with a heart of gold (Thuy An Luu), cops, killers, and a philosophical bohemian (Richard Bohringer) with an antique Citroën.


Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez and Frédéric Andréi in Diva (1981)
Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez and Frédéric Andréi in Diva (1981)

Featuring a go-for-broke chase through the Paris Métro and a heady soundtrack of opera and new-wave rhythms, Diva was not initially well-received in its native France. But its audiences grew following its release in the U.S., smashing house records at Manhattan's famed Paris Theatre, where it played for more than a year.


Five years later came 1986’s Betty Blue, a tale of l’amour fou starring Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade as a couple whose love and lust for each other helps one of them to strive for great achievements—as it wholly consumes the other. Sexy and dramatic and funny and tragic, it’s an oh-so-French story of compulsive and dangerous love. And it looks stunning to boot.


Like Diva, Betty Blue (an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel 37°2 le matin) was a huge success in the U.S. and around the world. Garnering excellent reviews and a strong ancillary life on video and cable TV, it prompted the release of Beineix’s original three-hour cut of the film, which was later issued on Blu-ray and DVD by the prestigious Criterion Collection in 2019.


Beatrice Dalle is Betty Blue (1986)
Beatrice Dalle is Betty Blue (1986)

Between Diva and Betty came Moon in the Gutter, a vividly stylized romance starring Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski that struck out with critics and at the box office both here and abroad. The same held true for a pair of subsequent narrative films, 1989’s Roselyne et les lions and 2001’s Mortel transfert, which barely made it out of France, let alone onto the radar of Beineix’s earlier fans.


The rest of Beineix’s filmography consists of four documentaries from the ‘90s that didn’t receive distribution in the U.S. until hungry L.A.-based arthouse supplier Cinema Libre released them on DVD more than a decade later. But Beineix’s docs barely raised an eyebrow compared to his ‘80s triumphs.


Betty Blue and Diva were huge successes, and distributors should figure out that audiences may be interested in watching the other films,” Beineix told me in an interview I conducted with him back in 2009, the year his documentaries were issued by Cinema Libre. “If I understood it, I would give you an explanation about the dysfunction in this business. But the price of talking too much is very high. In the background, they stab you for being an outlaw.”


 

Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.

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