Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 11, March 2004

 

 

Florence Martin

 

Reading Beineix:

Powrie's _Jean-Jacques Beineix_

 

 

Phil Powrie

_Jean-Jacques Beineix_

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001

ISBN 719055334

240 pp.

 

Phil Powrie's _Jean-Jacques Beineix_, a dense little book from Manchester University Press's series on French Film Directors, is useful in many ways. It can be used in Film Studies classes (and I certainly plan to use it next time I teach one of Beineix's films). It has also helped me unravel the polemic around Beineix, the *cinema du look*, and _Cahiers du cinema_. It is amazingly erudite and well crafted in its argumentation around complex theoretical notions (such as the baroque, postmodernism, and Kleinian psychoanalysis), as well as more focused cinematic techniques (I am thinking here of Powrie's remarkable analysis of voice -- Depardieu's voice, and the notion of 'voice-over' in his study of _La Lune dans le caniveau_). Finally it is helpful because it offers a clear, multi-layered reading of Beineix's films, both in dialogue with one another (as *oeuvre*) and as stand alone pieces. In the latter readings, each film is studied against the backdrop of the history of French cinema, in relationship to French cinema criticism, and against the backdrop of the history of ideas in the 1980s and subsequent years. In that, Powrie's book tackles the issue of reception with great dexterity, describing the viewer's *horizon d'attentes* (while viewing the film), as well as her anticipation of the viewing via her reading of the various critical readings of the film.

 

The book also avoids the classic pitfall of hagiography often incurred by a study of this type, by judiciously selecting biographical data (using only what is relevant in Beineix's life to the shaping of his work), and maintaining a healthy critical distance toward Powrie's object of discourse. Finally, the book is written in a luminously clear and dynamic style. Both a Professor of French Cultural Studies and Director of the Centre for Research into Film and Media at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Powrie is also the co-founder with Susan Hayward of _Studies in French Cinema_, an association and a journal of which he is one of the two general editors. After his seminal studies, _French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity_ and _French Cinema in the 1990s: Continuity and Difference_, as well as his more recent _French Cinema: A Student Guide_ co-authored with Keith Reader, and numerous articles, Powrie is proposing here a study of Beineix's films that not only challenges some of the received ideas around Beineix, but also the ivory tower of French film criticism.

 

The book is full of surprises, not least his ironical use of paratext, and has several narratives going: the study proper and the peripheral texts (Foreword, Preface, footnotes, etc.) both complement and collide with each other in a somewhat postmodern ironic stance. For instance, between a Preface by the author (in which Powrie posits himself squarely against 'authority') and the chapters of the study proper, Powrie invites Beineix to write a Foreword. The latter -- as *auteur* turned into an object of study -- writes:

 

'That it should be an Englishman who is rescuing a Frenchman from the stake of French critics smacks of Joan of Arc's revenge . . . I think it is worth emphasizing . . . I have always deliberately hidden things in my films. Powrie has discovered some of those secrets. I don't feel I have been unveiled, quite the contrary, I am happy to share these secrets with others.' (xiii)

 

The aim of the 'Englishman', it turns out, is not simply to unveil the secrets of Beineix's films -- to deconstruct, analyze, and evaluate their intrinsic qualities -- but also to carefully examine where Beineix has stood in the phases of French cinematic production since the 1980s, how his work has been received (and vilified), and to map out various approaches to his evolving cinema. Powrie's book is therefore more organic than Beineix's Foreword lets on. And, of course, it is also more 'authoritative' than Powrie's Preface lets on.

 

Powrie first contextualizes Beineix as an individual (from his early love of cinema to his experience in advertising) and as an author in postmodern times. In his 'Beineix in Context' chapter he unfolds the contradictions inherent to the notion of the 'postmodern' as style, and goes on to look at postmodern cinema as a way of imaging the collapse of high and popular cultures, by circulating images without origin, reproducing the always/already seen. The images of postmodern cinema, highly stylized and ironic, not only fragment narratives, but also collapse surface and meaning, and trigger in the viewer pleasure rather than thought, thereby stepping away from the cinema hailed by the sacrosanct French institution of _Cahiers du Cinema_. This focus on the visual, which led to the phrase 'cinema du look', is carefully analyzed throughout the book.

 

Here I would like to linger a bit on Powrie's Deleuzian analysis of Beineix's films as an instance of the 'neo-baroque' (delineated in the second chapter and in the analysis of _Diva_ in Chapter 3). This is where Powrie's gesture of secret-digging is most visible: his exemplary analysis of _Diva_, while also masterful at recapping the scholarship on the topic, ends up proposing a strikingly original two-part reading of the film. The first part, grounded in the psychoanalytical terms of the 1980s (taking his cues from Melanie Klein's narrative of the child's moves toward splitting away from the perceived 'bad', threatening mother, and toward fusion with the 'good' mother, prior to the Oedipal phase) convincingly shows Jules as a pre-oedipal figure, and demonstrates how the viewer is led to identify with the pre-oedipal drama through what Klein called 'memories of feelings'. The film also shows one of the recurring couples in Beineix's work: 'bad' fathers (Saporta) and sons (Jules). The second part of the argument is grounded in Deleuze's reading of baroque folds or pleats ('a vertiginous animality that gets entangled in the pleats of matter, but also an organic or cerebral humanity . . . that allows it to rise up'). [1] This is an especially apt lens to look at _Diva_ (or, for that matter, other postmodern artifacts) because it helps us understand how what we see and hear in the film connects to the numerous instances of splitting/folding which aim at the unutterable, the unreachable. At the end of Powrie's reading of _Diva_, the voice of the opera singer, her very performance, is given a new meaning beyond any analysis I have seen of the film or any analysis of the use of voice in cinema. At the end of the day, what Powrie is doing here is paving the way for a new theoretical way of looking at film-derived pleasure or emotion as a universal process.

 

The ensuing chapters -- analyses of _La lune dans le caniveau _, _37º2 le matin_, _Roselyne et les lions_, _IP5_, and _Mortel Transfert_ -- help configure an *oeuvre* with specific authorial marks or clues left in the film as signatures, much like Hitchcock's apparitions in his own film. These include: the use of filters (notoriously blue in _Diva_, green in _La lune dans le caniveau_, and cian -- blue-green -- in _Mortel Transfert_ ); the recurring 'Zen dialogue' as a fetish dialogue from one film to the next (started in the baguette butter-spreading scene of _Diva_); the reflections of women fetishized in mirrors and glasses (as Beineix intentionally stages his own filmic representation of woman); the presence of fetish objects (in particular cars: the white Rolls Royce in _Diva_, the red Ferrari in _La lune dans le caniveau_, the yellow Mercedes in _37º2 le matin_, the black BMW in _IP5_, the yellow Porsche and grey Cadillac in _Mortel Transfert_); and the use of empty spaces (e.g. church, lighthouse, cathedral, parking lot). Through it all, Powrie explains, Beineix images the spiritual by exploring the tensions between the fetishized other and empty spaces.

 

Beineix's *cinema du look* does not only appear authorial on the surface: it also deals with themes that are both intensely personal, and as such idiosyncratic (such as Beineix's double loss of a mother and a friend, that caused him to stop filming fiction features for ten years and shoot documentaries instead), and universal. When they show 'bad' father figures and 'weak' son figures, his films illustrate a crisis in masculinity (that Powrie examines _French Cinema in the 1980s_) which conflates the degradation of fathers and the wilting away of sons, but it also does something else. It alludes to another world of possibilities, both inner (the world of the unconscious and of the spiritual) and 'out there' (in the baroque vertical sense). In the end, his films pretend to be Zen-like (either literally in the projected images of calm, roomy interiors with Gorodish's wave, or ironically with the vision of a house being emptied by angry Betty), but their Zen-like surface barely covers another world of deep turbulences.

 

Powrie's _Jean-Jacques Beineix_ succeeds in showing how Beineix is not merely making good-looking films, but actually delivers complex messages. Anti-establishment Powrie thus efficiently goes against the grain of the unfair, relentless criticism spewed forth by the French film establishment against Beineix, and establishes him as a solid author.

 

Goucher College

Baltimore, Maryland, USA

 

 

Note

 

1. Deleuze, _The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque_ (1988), trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 66.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Powrie, Phil, _French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity_ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

--- _French Cinema in the 1990s: Continuity and Difference_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

 

Powrie, Phil, and Keith Reader, _French Cinema: A Student Guide_ (London: Arnold, 2002),

 

 

Filmography

 

Short Films

_Le Chien de M. Michel_ (_Mr Michel's Dog_), 1977.

 

Fiction Films

_Diva_, 1981.

_La Lune dans le caniveau_ (_The Moon in the Gutter_), 1983.

_37º2 le matin_ (_Betty Blue_), 1986.

_Roselyne et les lions_ (_Roselyne and the Lions_), 1989.

_IP5: L'Ille aux pachydermes_ (IP5: The Island of Pachyderms_, 1992.

_Mortel Transfert_ (_Mortal Transfer_), 2001.

 

Nonfiction Films

_Les Enfants de Roumanie_ (_The Children of Romania_), 1992.

_Otaku_, 1993.

_Place Clichy sans complexe_ (_Place Clichy with no complex/cineplex_), 1994.

_Assigne a residence_ (_Locked-in Syndrome_), 1997.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Florence Martin, 'Reading Beineix: Powrie's _Jean-Jacques Beineix_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 11, March 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n11martin>.

 

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