Anne-Elisabeth Moutet meets the refreshingly frank Bad Girl of French cinema.
There is something irredeemably rebellious about Béatrice Dalle that has kept her firmly outside any kind of Parisian establishment, even the movie crowd, not known here for being usually that exclusive. And so last week it was shocking, but not especially surprising, to see the police arrest and hold for an outrageous 72 hours of questioning, without a lawyer, in the garde-à-vue procedure usually reserved for dangerous terrorists, the actress who smouldered her way into international stardom with her first movie, Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue, back in 1986, for owning 0.7 gram of cocain and 0.2 gram of heroin.
Before she was released, a judge charged Dalle with drug use and being an accessory in drug dealing. As it turned out, police had raided and ransacked her Paris apartment on a tip-off from two homeless small dealers whom she had sheltered for a couple of days.
The entire scene was exactly the sort of thing that never happened to, say, Françoise Sagan, when she was accused of regular cocaine use and dealing five years ago. (Sagan, who happens to be an extremely nice person, readily admitted that she used the stuff and denied dealing, exactly like Béatrice Dalle). France's most famous novelist, who made a writing career of loving fast cars and difficult men, never saw the inside of a police station cell: she was politely notified of the charges, and was fined by a lenient judge a year later. Sagan had played at being bad and only managed naughty. Ever since the amazing success of Betty Blue, Béatrice Dalle has assumed the uneasy part of France's "bad girl", the one France's usually tame journos feel they can snigger at.
There was the radio columnist Philippe Aubert, who alway made nasty jokes about her sensuous mouth and deep cleavage. There was the film critic at L'Express who disparaged her looks and her acting. Three years ago, when she had her first brush with the police for shoplifting in a cheap jewellery store, the newsweekly Le Point called her a liar and a thief; and a few months later, TF1's star anchor Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, who'd invited her to speak about her latest movie, reneged on a deal with her publicity people to ask her live about the jewellery incident: the sort of thing he'd never, ever do to either Isabelle Adjani or Catherine Deneuve.
Such hatchet jobs are almost unheard of here: producers and actors are known to be capable of retaliating by withholding access to sets, rights to reproduce stills, invitations to gala nights or chummy dinner-parties at Le Fouquet's and, in some cases, advertising from offending newspapers. It's as if Béatrice Dalle's enemies had sensed she's not part of that little game, and therefore won't defend herself in the usual way. (She may slap someone's face, but she's unlikely to sue.) Those who dislike her, her independence, her wild streak, are usually men. There's something in her that taunts them. "I'm an outsider, and always was, even as a child," she has said. "I don't plan my career, I chose movies on a hunch, I've made mistakes and I'll make more."
Although she's acted in a lot of duds, Dalle has a presence on-screen that is truly powerful and makes her smallest parts stand out. With a good director (Beineix, Jim Jarmusch for Night on Earth, or Truffaut's former apprentice Jacques Doillon for La Vengeance d'une Femme) she gives the kind of performances that have made Quentin Tarantino, John Turturro, Neil Jordan, Spike Lee and Madonna seek her out and offer her parts, which she hasn't taken "because I don't speak good English, and I can't imagine being coached until I say my parts by rote; acting for me is saying something I mean."
In real life she is mesmerizing, devastatingly direct, a charmed sprite. I first met her on a magazine assignment, immediately after Betty Blue, on the set of her forgettable second movie, with and by the moody stage star, Francis Huster. She was 22 and knew the film would be terrible. "They've rewritten the screenplay after I signed, and now I get to undress on page 2," she moaned, dragging on a cigarette cadged from one of the technicians.
We had shooed off the film's publicist, something experienced actors know never to do when meeting an unknown interviewer, and Béatrice happily started to tell me about her childhood in a council block in Le Mans, her nosy neighbours who called her and her mother "sluts" because they wore make up, her dropping out of school at 16 to come to Paris, staying in and out of friends' flats or the odd squat, doing odd sales assistant jobs, living on fruit and milk, going out clubbing at night, and being "discovered" by a model agency scout on the Champs-Elysées. (The Betty Blue offer materialised after her first published pictures, a fairytale by filmland standards.) I felt I'd known her for years, so much that when she mentioned smoking joints, I put down my pen and notebook and made her promise never, ever to tell it to a journalist again.
We met again a few times. There was an interview in the wood-panelled bar of Hôtel Raphaël, which she had annexed as her second home for a while, and where all the waiters grinned at her in a slobbering trance. I remember we talked about diets and lipsticks and the expensiveness of Hermès Kelly handbags. Béatrice Dalle still believes to this day that she's ugly; and at the time she also thought she was fat. (She is now proudly waif-thin to the point of anorexia, beautiful in an almost tragic way, after a series of crazy diets that I immediately and unknowingly ascribed to cocaine when I first heard of her arrest last week.)
Another time I asked her to take part in a Clive James's Paris Special for BBC Two, and they got along like a dream, even though Béatrice swears she doesn't like reading books. (Well, not quite. For instance she read all of the Marquis de Sade after she saw Barry Lyndon and Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract.) After they'd finished shooting, we walked up the Champs-Elysées to Le Fouquet's, the movie crowd legendary bar brasserie, where she'd never set foot before, and she told me about being madly in love with Rupert Everett, who'd just starred as Guy Burgess in Marek Kaniewski's Another Country. "He's soooo much more handsome and more intelligent than I am," she wailed. "Béatrice, he may be more educated, but you're more intelligent," I replied, meaning it. She didn't look as if she believed me.
She has been married once, to the painter Jean-François Dalle. She's still sorry it ended. They met in a club before Béatrice ever thought of standing in front of a camera. She was 19. He was 25. They hoped it would be forever. Then Béatrice started flying from location to location, being interviewed and photographed. "I'd go someplace with him, nobody even looked at him, they all rushed at me. I was the cause of the breakup," she says. Since then there were romances, always sincere, not always happy. "I am ab-so-lute-ly faithful to the man I'm in love with," she says. "I can't imagine cheating. What would be the point?"
She doesn't cheat and hates it in others. When suave father-of-four Poivre d'Arvor, whose wife appeared with him on many lovey-dovey TV magazine pictures, suddenly asked her about her shoplifting live on prime-time news, she hit back: "You said you'd not talk about it. Well then, I'll talk about the [love] letters you sent me. Aren't you sorry you wrote them now?"
But then Béatrice always preferred difficult men like the rap singer Joey Starr or the actor Christopher Lambert. Difficult neighbourhoods: her Paris apartment is on working-class Place de la République, not trendy Bastille. Difficult friends: she remembers when she relied on others' hospitality for a roof, and opens her door readily to people like the junkies who shopped her last week. Now she's holed up at a friend's house in leafy Yvelines, with instructions to visit a doctor once a month. It won't quite tame her.
© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1995