JEAN-JACQUES Beineix, at 36, is a filmmaker who is being well rewarded for his 10-year apprenticeship. After getting a degree in philosophy and studying medicine for a year, he began his career in 1969, serving as production assistant and assistant director on a string of films by directors ranging from Jerry Lewis to Willard Huyck ("French Postcards"). It would seem he learned his craft well; "Diva," his debut, won four Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscar), including Best First Film.
The story of an 18-year-old Parisian postman infatuated with a black American opera singer, the movie tracks with unerring stylishness through a sometimes-bewildering array of punk thugs, corrupt police and tape pirates from Taiwan. The film, shot in a subtle range of nighttime-blue tones, has a glossy, expensive look that belies its reported cost of a little over $1 million. "Imagine Spielberg crossed with Cocteau," wrote Newsweek's David Ansen, "and you'll have an inkling of 'Diva's' style."
Beineix has achieved an authentic commercial hit--'Diva' has played 10 weeks in Los Angeles, eight in New York and is completing its fourth high-grossing week in Washington. Interviewed in a New York restaurant, over coffee and pastry, he turned out to be amiable and self-effacing. Slim, boyishly handsome, the director would stare broodingly across the street into Central Park before leaning forward to discuss his craft with the earnestness of a man who is not in the trade for fun alone.
Q. Are you surprised at the commercial success "Diva" has had?
A. I was maybe dreaming of that--you have the right to dream--but there was no objective reason that this happened. I didn't want to make a regular thriller; "Diva" is an adaptation of the genre to my own point of view. I didn't dream about this film for years. I had to make a first film; "Diva" was an opportunity.
Q. The film seems obsessed with technology, gadgetry. Did that obsession come from you as well as the book "Diva"?
A. Yes. I think it is an interest of this generation. What are we without these devices? How do they use them, and how do they use us? I think in this film there is some kind of claim that industry has to adapt to art, and not the contrary.
Q. The record pirates from Taiwan seem to be villains in that sense.
A. In the film, they just destroy themselves because they have a one-track mind. They don't see the world they live in--they just want the tape. The only one who is clever enough to understand is the man who stands aside and watches, Gorodish. He is rebuilding the world, piece by piece--like the jigsaw puzzle he works on. There was a scene I cut, and I very much regret it, at the end of the film. After Gorodish saves Jules, he comes back to the loft and was beginning another puzzle. There was a relation to the rhythm of his rebuilding, the cyclic nature of it.
Q. The two goons, dressed like punks, are very up-to-date.
A. It was not at all a submission to fashion. It was just the way they look. I am concerned by the violence of these times, and they are a connotation of that. I've studied psychology, and I'm interested in the psychological profile of people--but not in the movie. If I say something, I want to say it through action, or situations.
It's like the American novel. I read the preface to a French edition of "Of Mice and Men." And Joseph Kessel, in the preface, said, "The American novelists don't make psychology, they don't explain, they show the people."
Q. The critics here have been writing, favorably, that your films are a contrast to the talkier pictures from such directors as Godard, Truffaut, Jean Eustache . . .
A. I don't want to say I'm against them, but I have a right to be something else. There is a generation of moviemakers now--Juliet Berto with "Neige," Jacques Brel with "Exterieur Nuit," Patrick Grandperret with "Cours Circuits"--who work more with image than with words. We don't speak, we show.
Q. Yet underneath the images, you have a very humanistic bent.
A. Yes, the heritage of my education. I don't reject that. I have fears, I'm afraid of much of what's happening in the world. But as long as we believe in love, in the things we have in common as human beings, we won't be crushed. One way to fight against dehumanization is as an artist. That's the allegory of the opera singer in the film--to keep saying what we say, trying to be ourselves in the world without compromising with the big interests which are leading the world.
Q. It's interesting that the diva's relationship to the young postman is not sexual.
A. Are you so sure? I think we are just delaying this aspect of things. Both of them are just trying to live their love story. They will have a physical relation, but it would never be only that. It would always be a love relation with or without sex.
Q. Are there parts of the film that relate to your personal history?
A. It's like I was lying on the couch at the psychoanalyst's. I hide myself in the film. Let's say that the Citroen in the film was the car of my father--I spent my childhood in such a car. The puzzle--I lived in England for a while with a family that took in French students as their paying guests, and they have always had a puzzle in their drawing room. And I have a very . . . strained relation with the opera. My grandfather was a baritone, and I have an uncle who was a tenor, and I listened to all the operas when I was a child--Verdi, Massenet, Gounod. Then all that vanished from my preoccupations. It just came back with this film.
Q. Most of the frames in the film are rich in detail--a lot to absorb.
A. There is always another image beyond the image. In a film called "Quai des Brunes," by the great French director Marcel Carne, there's a scene where Jean Gabin, in this gloomy cafe, is talking with a painter, a very sad painter who says things like, "When you see a man swimming, I see a man drowning." And when people came to him to say "What are you painting?" he answered with a strange voice, "I'm painting the things that are beyond the things." That was something I was concerned with in "Diva"; trying to picture the invisible in scenes. The people that don't know it, feel it, and they know they feel it.
Q. It may be a homely example--but I was struck by the chase scene where the viewer is looking into the motorbike's rear-view mirror, yet the scenery he's rushing past is still in focus, and equally seductive to the eye.
A. Well, I didn't invent that myself. Otherwise I'd be a genuis, which I'm not. But it's a form of superrealism, hyperrealism--taking things in the world you are used to seeing and just putting them in another situation, to create an atmosphere that leads to something else. Another example is when the sun rises and you see the white car, with its lights on, facing the sun. That's an encounter, a magical relation between technology and the elements of the world--with man in between. There is some strange, invisible relation with knowledge, with history, with the technological devices. And we play with that.
Q. I understand your next project, "The Moon and the Gutter," will star Nastassia Kinski and Gerard Depardieu.
A. I've finished the script, based on a novel by a forgotten, talented American writer name David Goodis, and I start shooting near Paris in July. It's a kind of surrealistic thriller, taking place in a port, the harbor of Nowhere. The story is of a stevedore who comes every night to a street, absorbing himself in the contemplation of bloodstains on the street, where a desperate woman who was raped dragged a razor across her own throat. And in a kind of obsessional merry-go-round he goes back to his youth, his innocence--and that of his sister. He won't find peace until he finds the reason for the crime. It is a story of impossible love--a story between dreams and nightmares. It will be a "fake," all interiors, made by the same team who made "Diva"--set designer, cinematographer, casting director. I think reality is dead in movies. I want to build a set of images.