Saturday, September 02, 2017

Beineix, Opus 1

At the start of the eighties, an unknown director was redefining, in spectacular fashion, Good and Evil at the cinema. The audience, alone, loved Diva which the critics shunned*, merely reproaching Jean-Jacques Beineix for having indulged in a fussy exercise in ‘applied advertising’. Beineix is the last director about whom anything resembling an ‘aesthetic debate’ has taken place in France. After The Moon in the Gutter, in fact, people wearied of the Manichean opposition between the art of cinema and the advertising aesthetic. It’s not that they’ve been reconciled, but because, in the end, the ads have won. Hence the current desert (no more debate, no more criticism, just blah, blah, blah). 
The reason the debate folded was that the question wasn’t properly asked. For advertising is more than an ‘aesthetic’, it’s a way of being and perceiving, evaluating and judging, a view of the world in short. Diva’s success came from the fact that Beineix was the first to attempt to moralise the advertising heritage, by offering a new dividing line between the unsellable (the soul, creativity) and the pre-sold (objects, clichés). 
I can hear the most Nietzscheans among my readers getting impatient. What about Good and Evil in all this? Let’s start with Evil. There’s a very negative character in the film: one of the two killers working for the vile Saporta. An insalubrious little thug thoroughly deserving to end up dead in a lift cage, not so much because he loves nobody but because he loves nothing. ‘I don’t like Beethoven’, ‘I don’t like parking lots’, ‘I don’t like lifts’. To dislike any object or decor to that extent, that’s Evil. 
As far as Good is concerned, besides the young music-loving post office worker, there’s the strange deus ex machina played by Bohringer. If he unravels all the plot threads and makes the happy ending possible, it’s because he represents the consciousness and masterly incarnation of objects and sets. The man who has turned his loft into a masterpiece and who can theorise about caviar and butter toasts can only be on the side of Good. There’s no need to know more about this character. The camera only needs to move discreetly around him to give us a guided tour of his personalised museum. Each of us, perhaps, should live in a personalised museum where every object would have its private and public space. Could that be Beineix’s lesson? 
The best proof of this is given near the end of the film in the episode of the white Traction Avant that is put at the disposal of the vile Saporta, and seems tele-guided by Bohringer’s voice. It’s quite a funny moment when all the plot threads come together thanks to this ideal object which was in the hands of the cops and the villains before passing into the hands of the museum curators: a Traction Avant. What irony of this voice simultaneously mimicking advertising, guided tour and clichés; the Traction Avant as an indestructible object which will explode and will immediately be replaced by another one. As the little Vietnamese girl says at the start of the film: ‘You wouldn’t think a Rolls can have an accident!’. Objects like this are the soul of the world. 
So there was a moment in recent cinema - exemplified by Diva - where there began to be more stories and desires crammed into sets and objects than into characters. A moment when everyone wanted to go back the studio. Not to build another street but to discover that the word ‘studio’ now had two meanings: the place where you film (to make ‘true artifice’) and the place where you look at yourself living (in the midst of ‘artificial truth’). 
Seeing Diva again one Sunday morning on Canal Plus is of course a confirmation of just how much the film is in its element on television. Why? Because in 1980 Beineix had the very accurate intuition that one shouldn’t get all worked up about cast-iron screenplays, but instead had to compose, detail by detail, films that are little TV programme schedules unto themselves, disparate and customised for the era of random channel hopping. In the Diva index there are several sub-programmes: a thoroughly French but barely sketched thriller, a meditation on the artist and his audience, fillers, a documentary about Paris loft life, etc. Beineix was honest enough not to attempt to convey something between all these elements. Indeed, if there is something that advertising cannot film and whose very memory it has entirely lost, it is precisely what there is between people and things. 

* For all that, it isn’t easy for a director to be adopted by the public and not applauded by the critics. All criticism is good for now is to baptise this or that audio-visual product as a ‘film’. All it has left is this scant symbolic function. The dreary thing is that a director who has not had the ‘luck’ to be recognised (by those for whom, more often than not, he has no recognition, and sometimes wants to see skinned alive) may never get over it and things may turn sour. This happened with Jerry Lewis, who was forever scorned by American critics, or with Pagnol, Guitry or Lelouch. Often, these directors get canonised. They are forgiven for having been popularly successful in the first place, once the popularity is no longer there. Recently, the resentment has speeded up to the extent that it’s the cinema as a whole which can no longer allow itself to leave it to the fullness of time for justice to be done. Hence the pathetic Cesars, the expeditious self-acquittal of the ‘profession’ under the mocking and ecstatic eye of television. 
First published in Libération on 21 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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