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Friday, July 13, 2012
'The Lady' / 'Betty Blue'
French men in awe of strong women
In cinema, as in music, micro-trends come and go: Will anyone remember "mumblecore" a decade from now? Yet the '80s French movement known as le cinema du look, based on three brash young French directors, has aged remarkably well. Jean-Jacques Beineix ("Diva"), Luc Besson ("Subway"), and Leos Carax ("Mauvais Sang") were praised and crucified for exactly the same thing: their bold embrace of visual style.
They were cool, in fact they defined cool, and they were most definitely sensualists — a banner since adopted by Wong Kar-wai and a few others — crafting each shot as a thing of beauty in itself. Rejecting the ossified rules of "serious" French cinema, theirs was a freer, more playful form of expression ... although a bit too free for the mainstream.
The three directors' paths have since gone in very different directions: Carax, after the long and troubled shoot of "Les Amants du Pont Neuf" (1991), went into semi-retirement, breaking it with the execrable "Pola X" in 1999, and then nothing until he resurfaced at Cannes this spring with the insane and polarising "Holy Motors," which at least proves he's still a young punk at heart.
Besson has had a long and profitable career embracing Hollywood tropes in his own Euro films and franchises ("Taxi", "Transporter"). It's been a long time since he directed anything vital, though — arguably 1994's "Leon: The Professional," which remains a much-loved film locally. Yet throughout his career, Besson has remained fascinated by iron-willed women, whether it's the stiletto-heeled assassin of "Nikita," (1990) the armor-wearing prophetess of "The Messenger: Joan of Arc" (1999), or the acrobatic humanoid Leeloo in "The Fifth Element" (1997).
Thus it's not entirely surprising to see Besson take a break from action/fantasy to make "The Lady," a highly conventional and respectful portrait of Nobel prize-winning Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. Daughter of Aung San — the father of Burmese independence, assassinated in 1947 — Suu Kyi had been living in Oxford with her husband, scholar Michael Aris, and their two sons when in 1988, on a trip to Burma, she was caught up in the anti-junta demonstrations that engulfed the country. Suu Kyi was propelled into a leadership role in the democracy movement, but the military rulers crushed them and put Suu Kyi under house arrest, which lasted until 2010.
The emotional hook to the story comes from the fact that her husband, back in England, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1997 — the Burmese government consistently denied Aris a visa to visit his wife, while Suu Kyi felt unable to leave, knowing full well she would be barred from returning.
Michelle Yeo, in a less action-packed role for a change, captures Suu Kyi's quiet dignity perfectly, but also finds the conflict between her own desires and the role history had imposed on her. David Thewlis, for his part, shows real affection and a dry wit as Aris, and his scenes with Yeo sparkle. Yet "The Lady" is a bit too slick for its own good; Besson has been in hyper-reality for so long, it's hard for him not to make everything postcard-perfect, even when it needs to get a bit raw and painful. But if it gets Suu Kyi's story out there, then more power to him.
Which brings us to Beineix. One of the great losses of modern cinema is that this eminently talented director hasn't made a film in over a decade now. His masterpiece of amour fou, "Betty Blue," sees a 25th anniversary revival in a brand new digitally remastered print. This remains one of the most gorgeous films you could ever hope to see on the big screen, bathed in warm amber and moody indigo light, with an unforgettable jazz-inflected score by Gabriel Yared, and featuring a then 21-year-old unknown Beatrice Dalle, whose feral beauty is unlike anything seen on screen before or since. Better yet, it's the original 2-hour version, not the expanded director's cut which added some distracting sub-plots.
The director's cut was the very first film I reviewed for The Japan Times way back in 1993; "Betty Blue" was damn near my favorite film back then, and while I still love it to death, I've kept a healthy distance for a while now, for much the same reason I avoid tequila slammers: the day after is brutal. But if you were born in the '80s, and this film is one you've somehow missed up until now, though, I can't recommend it enough. With Jean-Hugues Anglade as an ambitionless beach-dwelling slacker, and Dalle as the wild-child pick-up who turns his life upside-down, the film is an ode to that time in your life where you don't really care about anything other than holding your lover close all night long; when work is just enough to buy a bit of drink to fuel the evenings until that glorious day when you can flip off your boss and quit; when you can leave town on a whim for destination unknown, and when you don't really worry about the future too much, especially the warning signs that hint of madness behind those passionate kisses.
"Betty Blue" is the most wildly romantic film you could ever hope to see, yet it's also dark as all hell, with Dalle's character slowly descending into schizophrenia and her lover unable to pull her back. Beineix nailed something in this film that I was too young to understand when I first saw it, but now know with the certainty that only death can provide: the most passionate in love are also the most desperate in failure, their desire equalled by their despair. Beineix put it best when he said, in a 1986 interview, "I am sorry for the ending, but if the movie had a happy ending, I would have lost something important — that unfortunately, whatever we believe of the future of our relationship, one day we have to split. That is the burden of life."