Perhaps the most exhilarating entertainment of the 1980s is the fabulous Diva (1982), by Jean-Jacques Beineix, a mere thirty-three at the time. This is the one where the kid on his moped, a letter carrier who has stumbled into a dangerous intrigue involving drugs and murder, speeds for his life while being chased throughout the Parisian subway. For many (and perhaps somewhat for me), Beineix’s 37º2 le matin (Betty Blue, 1986) retained Diva’s promise. I didn’t see Moon in the Gutter (1983) in between, taking everyone else’s word that there was no need to; nor have I seen Roselyne and the Lions (1989). I have seen only one of Beineix’s films since: Ip5: L’île aux pachydermes. I’m sorry to report I think it’s terrible.
Ip5—the number in the title refers to the fact that this is Beineix’s fifth film—is scattered, even for a road picture. (I refer readers to the beginning of my piece on 1988’s Rain Man for a summation of my love, generally, for this kind of movie.) I do not mind that the film seems to exist as much in Beineix’s mind as on the road as its two young principals take flight: Tony, a 21-year-old “graffiti artist,” and Jockey, his alarmingly streetwise 11-year-old rapper-companion. Tony is white; Jockey, black. The two have stolen a van and hit the road from Paris in hopes of retrieving the photo album of Tony’s handiwork that a pack of skinheads has stolen from him. Tony is also in pursuit of a pretty nurse. Along the way, the two meet Leon, an elderly man seemingly in magical touch with Nature, who involves them in a series of adventures that amounts to a sentimental education.
One comes to films with all sorts of prejudices, and one of my own is a contempt for graffiti artists, insofar as they fail to appreciate how puny is the stand against society and authority that they irritatingly and arrogantly take. (Nor do I give credence to rap, for that matter, as a legitimate form of poetry or music.) Since Tony fits the bill, I’m inclined to grant the film some leeway on this score. I presume we are to count as ironic his fixation on a piece of property, the memorializing book of photographs—a condition at odds with the spirit of leaving graffiti behind throughout the city. Boys like Tony contemplate nothing; they are driven. The versatility of their canvases is meant to give them a sense of autonomy and even omnipotence. All of Paris, in some sense, is Tony’s, but in the end Leon has accumulated a strength and a wisdom that make whatever Tony has acquired seem negligible by comparison. The stolen book is symbolic of the private sense of impotence for which Tony is always compensating.
This working-class material, then, is potentially rich, but the lackluster nature of the trip deprives it of the requisite spirituality. None of the characters interests me, including Leon, who is played, in his last performance, by the estimable Yves Montand. Since his youth here, Olivier Martinez, who plays Tony, has become a popular French actor and mainline hunk. Early Martinez, Montand’s last: That pretty much sums up how this insubstantial movie will be remembered. Jean-François Robin’s lauded color cinematography must be more sensitive on screen, in a good print, than it appeared in the ragtag videotape transfer I watched.
In Betty Blue, Beineix gave us a startling piece of mise-en-scène: a man and woman making love, on the wall above their bed a copy of the Mona Lisa. It’s only a print, we keep reminding ourselves, as our attention is pulled apart by the sight of a harmonious masterpiece and a rhythmic human event. What shall take precedence in the domain of our viewing? Will the lover of art in us win out against the voyeur? Will the outcome determine the state of Western civilization in our time?
This grand opening of the film, as the camera slowly edges in a bit, is jaw-dropping. Alas, Ip5: L’île aux pachydermes, by contrast, is snooze-inducing.
Not at the Seattle International Film Festival, where apparently it interrupted the monotony of rain, winning best film and best director prizes.