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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2001

What stressed directors want

Mortel Transfert

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Aoi Yume no Onna
Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix
Running time: 122 minutes
Language: French
Now showing

It's hard to believe that it's been eight years since the last Jean-Jacques Beineix film, 1992's "IP5." For a director with such a devoted following, this may seem surprising, but when veteran actor Yves Montand died shortly after wrapping "IP5," the French media blamed Beineix for overworking him, and his name was mud.

News photo
Jean-Hugues Anglade (right) in Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Mortel Transfert"

Beineix hit bottom and decided to take a break. After a good long period painting, shooting a few documentaries for TV and generally unwinding, the director at last has a new film out, "Mortel Transfert," based on a novel by Jean-Pierre Gattegno.

Jean-Hugues Anglade, Beineix's star from "Betty Blue," is back in the lead as Michel Duran, a Parisian psychoanalyst who has a few problems of his own as well. One is his tendency to doze off during sessions, the other is that his patients are driving him nuts. One, in particular, a deliberately seductive femme fatale named Olga -- played by Helene de Fougerolles -- toys with Michel by flashing her garters and describing the thrills of masochistic sex and kleptomania.

News photo
Helene de Fougerolles in Tokyo

One snowy eve, Michel dozes off during a session with Olga, and he awakens to her cold corpse on the sofa. What happened? First Michel has to scramble to stash the body, then dodge her violent husband who comes looking for her. Then there are the police, a homeless man who's a bit too observant, and the patients who wonder what that strange smell is . . .

The shrink's sofa-derived jokes combined with the black humor of corpse disposal seems more like Woody Allen doing "Frenzy" than anything we've seen of Beineix before. Then there are the David Lynchian touches -- a surreal dream laced with Freudian symbology and an almost pornographic whipping sequence.

But there are flashes of the old Beineix as well: the offbeat humor, the eroticism of the image, atmospherics (the whole film seems bathed in a blue sheen), and -- Beineix being Beineix -- another stunningly beautiful actress in the lead. Joining Beatrice Dalle ("Betty Blue"), Nastassja Kinski ("The Moon in The Gutter") and Isabelle Pasco ("Roselyne and the Lions") is de Fougerolles, the latest Beineix beauty to leave audiences with sore eyes (from forgetting to blink while she's onscreen.)

With her languorous body-language and imperious way with a cigarette, de Fougerolles seems a natural as a femme fatale, so it's surprising to learn she almost turned down the role. In an interview, she explained how "when Beineix first told me about the role, to be honest, I was really shocked. She was masochistic and enjoying this abuse, and that mentality was just something I didn't share in any way."

But after thinking it over, she called the director back and said yes. "I thought I shouldn't be so narrow-minded as to only play characters like myself," said de Fougerolles. "I felt I should take such risks."

Moreover, the explicit S/M scene was turned over to a young porn starlet. "I didn't actually have to play those scenes," said de Fougerolles, "only to convey the feelings with my words."

That didn't mean it was an easy shoot for the actress: two-thirds of her screen-time is spent as a good-looking corpse. For de Fougerolles, "the hardest part was that I was playing a corpse with my eyes open, so I had to keep them still. But that was important, the gaze. That was acting! [Laughs.] I also had to halt my breathing while they were shooting."

Worst, it seems, was being dragged through the snow and not shivering in the slightest. Perhaps the actress does have a bit of a masochistic streak after all.

A shrink could probably uncover that, but de Fougerolles has yet to see one, not even in prep for her role. "Olga wasn't really going to Michel for analysis," she explained. "She was going to seduce him, deliberately trying to wreck his facade of calm and rationality. So I didn't see the need to go. But if I ever had some sort of severe problem arise, something I couldn't handle myself, certainly I'd go."

Apparently, Beineix himself saw a psychoanalyst during his sabbatical. But, according to de Fougerolles, "these days he takes a really ironic look at that period." Certainly, the pressure seems to have gone -- the actress describes the director as relaxed and joking around on the set, and generally shooting every scene in one or two takes. "Beineix has a very clear image of what he wants, so he'll guide you through it correctly the first time."

De Fougerolles will certainly garner attention with this role, but her career desires may cause a stir among French cinestes. When asked which actresses influenced her performance, she immediately cited Sharon Stone, and when asked which director she'd most like to work with, her answer was just as quick: "Stephen Spielberg . . . or Luc Besson."

My advice: Luc, get on the phone. Now.

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