Prophet without Honor

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When Jean-Jacques Beineix's first film, Diva, hit the movie houses in 1981, French critics hated it. They didn't know what to make of the bizarre mix of comic book bad guys, an opera-loving hero obsessed with a beautiful black soprano, an improbable motorcycle chase through the Paris Metro. Yet the movie became an instant art-house success in the U.S. and eventually acquired cult-film status — along with four Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscar. After that, the young director's career became a veritable roller-coaster ride: a disastrous failure for La Lune dans le Caniveau (1983), a triumph with 37°2 le Matin (1986), lukewarm receptions for Roselyne et les Lions (1989) and IP5 (1992). Then, suddenly, the roller coaster stopped and Beineix got off.

This month, for the first time in eight years, Beineix, 54, returns to the arena with Mortel Transfert, an intricate murder mystery about a psychoanalyst and a sultry female patient who is strangled on his couch. French critics were lying in wait: the reviews ranged from mediocre to merciless, accusing Beineix of making a confusing, self-indulgent, unfocused film about the arcane subject of psychoanalysis. Such reactions will probably seem baffling to moviegoers unencumbered by anti-Beineix baggage.

In fact, Mortel Transfert is an extremely well-told and entertaining detective tale, full of suspense and burlesque humor and seen through the prism of an aesthetic sensibility that turns every frame into a rich tableau of light and shadow, color and composition. Based on a thriller by Jean-Pierre Gattegno, it is a film that Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen — two of Beineix's favorite directors — could have made in their own manner. Mortel Transfert tells the story of Michel Durand (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a jaded, 40-something psychoanalyst who listens indifferently as his clients recount their sexual fears and fantasies. But he is intrigued, and troubled, by one beautiful patient, Olga Kubler (Helène de Fougerolles), who caresses her garter belt provocatively as she recounts her sadomasochistic relationship with her husband, a wealthy and corrupt business tycoon. One snowy evening, as she is describing the sensual pleasure of being beaten by her husband, Durand dozes off. He wakes up to find the beautiful Olga strangled on his couch.

Durand wonders if he didn't kill her himself in a psychotic trance. But there is no time to dwell on such details: with a full waiting room just outside the door, he stuffs the body under the couch and continues seeing his patients. From there on, the film shifts gears into thriller-comedy mode, as Durand confronts a Hitchcockian series of macabre mishaps while trying to get rid of the body. He finally manages to spirit the cadaver into Paris' legendary Père Lachaise Cemetery, where a necrophiliac with an inflatable doll helps him dump Olga into an ancient tomb. Meanwhile, Olga's husband, the ruthless Max Kubler, is threatening to kill Durand unless he forks over the million dollars in cash that Kubler claims Olga stole from him. All ends well as Olga's actual killer is murdered during a seance, a local bum turns up with the money and offers it to Durand in exchange for psychoanalytic treatments, and the shrink resolves a problem that has been bedeviling his own love life.

For all the symbolism, Lacanian puns, fantasy scenes and psychoanalytic allusions, Beineix insists that his film is basically a screwball comedy. "If you look at a Woody Allen film," he says, "there is a lot of despair, derision, everything goes wrong. But he makes fun of himself, it's a comedy." Beineix feels that people have trouble seeing Mortel Transfert as a funny picture because it deals with psychoanalysis. "It's just entertainment," he says.

Beineix finds himself in the paradoxical situation of being one of France's best-known directors — and an outspoken crusader for the survival of French cinema in the face of the Hollywood onslaught — and at the same time he is the bête noire of French movie critics. "France is full of paradoxes," he says. "This is one of the rare countries that can claim to have a determining, critical influence on world cinema. But the French don't like themselves. So this country that crowns filmmakers very rarely crowns French filmmakers."

His future hangs on the success of Mortel Transfert: Beineix says he sunk $2 million of his own money into the $7 million film and will be "wiped out" if it flops. In view of the negative reviews and listless ticket sales, the prognosis doesn't look great. But Beineix is hoping that the Diva miracle will repeat itself.