Jean-Jacques Beineix’s six feature films epitomise what came to be known as the cinéma du look in the 1980s. Diva (1981) and Betty Blue (1986) were both hugely successful, their spectacular surface images marking a significant turn in French filmmaking of the time. 

They appealed to a new and younger generation of filmgoers attuned to the high production values of contemporary Hollywood and even more to MTV and advertising, which were rejected by the filmmakers of the New Wave. Other filmmakers associated with this style, such as Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, inflected their films with a Hollywood aesthetic, and went on to make films in English. Beineix rejected the few offers Hollywood made him.

He began his filmmaking career in the early 1970s, working as assistant director for several major filmmakers, including Jean Becker, Claude Berri, René Clément and Claude Zidi. In 1977, he turned to directing with the award-winning short, Mr Michel’s Dog. 

Diva (1981)

His first feature, Diva (1981), was the familiar rite of passage for many first-time directors in France – a police thriller. Yet the film was anything but standard genre fare. The film begins with almost five minutes of a then unknown aria from Catalani’s opera La Wally, sung on stage by an Afro-American singer, with Beineix’s graceful camera panning vertiginously around her, at odds with the gritty spaces of the traditional police drama. The plot involves an opera-loving postman making an illegal recording of the singer’s performance, which is later mistaken for a recording incriminating a corrupt police chief. Other atypical spaces include an enormous loft with isolated objects, such as a lion-claw bath, and a Vietnamese teenager roller-skating noisily as the mysterious owner meditates in front of a wave machine. 

As a result of word of mouth, the film stayed for a year in one of Paris’s small art cinemas, its César awards for best first film, best décor, best lighting and best sound catapulting the number of spectators well over the million mark, which in French terms constitutes significant success. It also did well in the USA, grossing $6 million, making it the third best-performing French film in the USA since 1975.

Beineix’s next film, The Moon in the Gutter (1983), was an adaptation of a David Goodis novel. It was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was disowned by its star, Gérard Depardieu, and panned by critics, despite Beineix’s claim that he wanted to make a film in the style of the 1945 classic Les Enfants du paradis. Filmed in the Cinecittá studios, its dreamy atmosphere and artificial sets were, like Diva, intriguingly atypical of French films. 

Betty Blue (1986)

His third feature, Betty Blue (1986), an adaptation of Philippe Djian’s popular 1985 novel, regained the youth audience that had made Diva a success. Its tragic couple – Zorg, the drifter who tries to settle down by opening a piano shop, and the disturbed Betty (an extraordinary performance from Béatrice Dalle) – play out a doomed romance in which Betty ends up gouging out one of her eyes, and Zorg cross-dresses so as to enter the psychiatric hospital and suffocate her. 

Beineix’s three later films did increasingly less well. Roselyne and the Lions (1989) tried to recapture what made Betty Blue so successful, with two young circus lion tamers in another doomed romance. Its shiny images seem now almost a parody of the cinéma du look, although the style echoes that of one of Beineix’s mentors, Stanley Kubrick. IP5 (1992) is remembered more for the death of its star, Yves Montand, who died of a heart attack during filming. Beineix’s last feature, made a decade later, Mortel Transfert (2001), focuses on the relationship between a psychoanalyst and his sado-masochistic patient.

Between his two last features, Beineix turned to TV documentaries, with subjects as diverse as post-1989 Romania, obsessive Japanese collectors, the creation of a multiplex in Place Clichy, and, in 1997, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s locked-in syndrome, a topic treated more fulsomely a decade later in Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of Bauby’s book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

In his later years, Beineix turned to the theatre, directing the musical show Kiki de Montparnasse (2016), and to writing, publishing his memoires in 2006 and a critically acclaimed first novel, Toboggan in 2020.

Beineix’s relationship with the critical establishment was never easy. The cinéma du look in general and Beineix in particular were panned by the Cahiers du cinéma. To their criticism that his style was based in an advertising aesthetic, Beineix acerbically countered that it appealed to young audiences and signalled the end of the New Wave. Foreign critics were more forgiving. Fredric Jameson considered Diva to be the first French postmodern film, and it remains a modern classic.

  • Phil Powrie is the author of Jean-Jacques Beineix (Manchester University Press, 2001).