DENVER — The fall occurred more than three years ago, and though French film director Jean-Jacques Beineix looks and sounds fine, he says he will never totally recover. The memory hounds him like a recurring nightmare, and he is deathly afraid that it will happen again.
No, it was not a plane crash. It just felt like one. All those scars were left by the critical reaction--the critical annihilation--to his second film, "The Moon in the Gutter."
"Since 'The Moon in the Gutter,' I am like an accident victim," said Beineix, the day after his third film, "Betty Blue," (his first was "Diva") was shown in the Denver Film Festival. "I will never recover. I will never forget. The 'Moon' killed something in me forever."
Beineix may be thinking with a limp, but his work is in top form. "Betty Blue," a very funny and very tragic love story about a would-be novelist (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and the sexually charged dynamo (Beatrice Dalle) who makes his success her only reason for living, returns Beineix to the front rank of international directors where many critics prematurely placed him after he made his debut with "Diva" in 1982.
"Betty Blue" has had major commercial success in France and was one of the hits of the recent North American film festival season. It won the grand prize at the Montreal festival, where it was also picked by audiences as the most popular entry.
The 40-year-old Beineix, speaking rapidly with a thick accent, acknowledged that the success of "Diva" elevated his own self-confidence to unreasonable heights. Even though that film, an intricate and highly stylized thriller about an errand boy who becomes accidentally involved in an international drug ring, was dismissed by most of the important French critics, it was a commercial hit in France and a critical hit nearly everywhere else.
Beineix fell quickly into the trappings of success and ego. For his second film, he wrote a surreal story about an emotionally disturbed dockworker who falls in love with a mystery woman who resembles his slain sister, and he cast major stars Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski in those key roles.
"The Moon in the Gutter" was accepted for competition in the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, where the same French critics who had lashed "Diva" were laying for it, Beineix said.
"The success of 'Diva' was like a slap in the face to them; they felt humiliated," Beineix reasoned. "In Cannes, an audience can kill a movie very easily if they want to. They began killing 'Moon' in the first two minutes."
The critics, an audible bunch in Europe, whistled and jeered 'Moon' at the morning press screening, then grilled Beineix as if he were a felon at the ensuing press conference. The director was found guilty of over-stylization (to which he now pleads guilty) and intellectual pretentiousness, and sentenced to a wave of scalding reviews.
That night, Beineix sat in the front row of the main theater for the gala public screening--with actresses Kinski and Victoria Abril digging their nails nervously into his hands--staring at the screen as if it were an elevator cable about to snap.
"For two hours and 17 minutes, I sat there paralyzed, listening for every cough, for any sign of movement. I want to disappear into my chair."
"The Moon in the Gutter" did not bounce back in North America. It was panned almost universally. Even Gerard Depardieu trashed it, which is the French equivalent of Robert Redford pinching his nose when asked about "Legal Eagles."
Beineix said he had hoped to have "Betty Blue" selected for competition at Cannes this year, even if it meant walking the plank a second time. But the organizers did not take it and "Betty Blue" premiered in Paris without the advance drubbing he would have expected from the French critics.
"The night of the premiere at a big theater on the Champs Elysees, I did not want to go. I was afraid of the failure and I wanted to escape. But then I said, 'No, I have to go. I have to accept the result. Otherwise, for the rest of my life, I will think I am a loser.' "
There were no whistles or jeers this time. "Betty Blue," despite its downbeat and quizzical ending, received a standing ovation. And with the exception of a few hardcore detractors, the film even managed to win over most of the French critics.
"Betty Blue," like "Diva," was invited to a string of festivals in the United States and Canada, and has been well-received at each of them. The non-whistle stops for Beineix included festivals in Toronto, Montreal, Mill Valley, Denver and Chicago. It opened commercially Friday in New York and Los Angeles. (Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times called it the "most astonishing" of Beineix's films.)
Beineix said the good festival receptions and the good commercial receipts at home (he said he will earn more than $2 million as director and producer of "Betty Blue") has not made him feel safe in a theater showing his movie.
"I have to leave the theater every time it is shown, even when I know the audience likes it. I can't stand it. I am afraid. I will remember forever sitting in that theater in Cannes (for "The Moon in the Gutter") and being mugged."
Beineix is now interested in producing films in France and is negotiating with two Hollywood studios about directing a picture here. One of them is called "The Bats," a script that Beineix wrote about vampires.
He swears it was not a statement about French film critics.