As part of Hot Press’s 40th anniversary celebrations, we’ve lined up a number of interviews with some of the most legendary figures in music, film, literature, sport and more. Kicking off our special series, we board planes, trains, automobiles – and ultimately a boat on the Seine – in search of an interview and photo shoot with French screen icon, Béatrice Dalle.
Interview and Photography: Mark Hogan
Transcript Translation: Floriane Millecamps
In 1986, Béatrice Dalle changed French cinema forever. With the controversial, Oscar-nominated 37°2 Le Matin (Betty Blue on these shores), she became an international sex symbol overnight, and the poster girl on teenage bedroom walls across Ireland. With a joie de vivre that connected with the world at large, she oozed the sensuality of a modern day Monroe-Bardot combo, but not unlike her on-screen character, she also had a darker side.
Fast-forward more than 30 years. I’m due to attend a gala charity event in Paris with Derry guitarist, singer and songwriter Paul Casey, who will perform on the night. I browse the guest list in advance. One name jumps out: “Béatrice Dalle”. At once, I begin my efforts to arrange a sit-down with France’s real-life femme fatale...
A few days later, after a train ride to Belfast, we depart the city’s International Airport for Paris. In a frenetic Uber ride across the city, we witness the merry violation of most of the rules of the road. On arrival at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, we carefully pass a Fender Strat on to the boat, then leap on board just as it begins to set off down the Seine.
The scene is set; it’s a cool 25°C, the sun beams through the lattice girders and metal trusses of the Eiffel Tower, bouncing off the deck as champagne and canapés are served. The soirée is the brainchild of one Claude Mariotinni, a remarkable individual who performs heart surgery by day and rock ‘n’ roll by night. The renowned French cardiologist-musician fronts The Low Budget Men (a nod to The Kinks’ album) and also takes on songwriting duties. All proceeds from the band’s concert and album sales tonight, as always, are donated to 20,000 Vies. The charity’s goal is to save 20,000 lives in France each year by providing defibrillators in public spaces and the education necessary to ensure their proper use.
There’s quite a mix on board: TV celebrities, former Formula 1 and boxing stars, musicians (including Oscar winning composer Francis Lai), and the odd multi-millionaire are all here to support the life-saving work of 20,000 Vies. And then, across the deck, I spot her …
As Casey’s mercurial electric guitar riffs soar into the Parisian sky, Monsieur Mariotinni introduces me to Madame Dalle, and explains my wish to interview her for Hot Press. She looks me up and down. “Let’s do it!”, she pronounces in French, and before I know it, we’re downstairs, alone together in the grand ballroom of a floating Michelin star restaurant.
The most surprising thing about interviewing Béatrice Dalle is that we manage to communicate for an hour, entirely in French. With only Leaving Cert French to rely on, I had worked out the questions on Google Translate, en route. Usually, I’m the guy who asks ‘Où est la gare?’, then stares in open-mouthed confusion when the answer is, unsurprisingly, in French. On this occasion however, my saving grace is that Dalle’s wonderfully animated facial expressions hint at the right moment to nod in agreement, as I feign understanding. So, with my best French accent, commençons...
How did you land the role of Betty?
It happened by chance; I did the cover of Photo magazine... the film was being cast at the time and I fitted the character’s physical description. I was exactly what they were looking for. So, they made me do the auditions. All the actresses in France were interested. But I saw in [director, Jean-Jacques] Beineix’s eyes that it was me: he had found me. And there’s an incredible story: after the film was released, they published the book with my picture on it. But before that, there was obviously no picture of me on the book. My agent Dominique Besnehard tells me he’s going to buy the book for me, so we walk into a shop. All the 37°2 books are on the till. The shopkeeper looks at me – he had just read it. He didn’t know me, I had never done a film before – and he says, ‘Hey, if they ever adapt the book to the screen, you should be cast!’ Dominique Besnehard couldn’t believe it. It was like a sign, a premonition. I’d never done anything – but already people thought I could portray the character.
Did you have any idea of the reaction Betty Blue would cause worldwide?
No, I couldn’t have realised it at that time. It was the first time I was working! When the movie came out, no one knew who I was. One month later, I arrive at Cannes Film Festival and there are buses of people coming from everywhere to see me, like when there’s a big football match! And there’s a riot because I’m there! I’m a 20-year-old kid. No one knew me a month before, and now suddenly I’ve become the attraction.
Almost overnight, it established you as the public paradigm of modern femininity. Did you struggle to adjust?
No, I didn’t struggle with it, it was very natural. I’m very happy about everything that has happened to me. I thank God every day for this incredible life. I’ve always dealt with everything very well. Incredible things have happened to me, my life was turned upside-down but it’s all positive!
What was it like to live in that moment?
People took an interest in me, girls wanted to look like me. So, I lived up to everything. I’m like a soldier. If I were a guy, I would have been a Légionnaire: I would have signed up for the army, to live a community life. For example, now, I’m on stage. I enjoy touring, I like living together with friends, the loyalty. If you’re a soldier, you have to help each other.
Many of our readers weren’t even born when the film was released...
Oh look, I’ll show you something! It’s so weird that young people also know who I am. Look at what some guy sent me. [Shows photo on her phone of her face, tattooed across the guy’s back]. And there are so many people tattooing stuff everywhere! And these are young people. He is 22!
What was it like working with Jean-Jacques Beineix?
I was a child almost. I didn’t know anything about the world of cinema, so I listened to everything he said, but at the same time there was stuff that I didn’t like. There were fights and there were crises. It was very weird, but it was still magical. We shot it over three months, September to November, where the weather was beautiful. We were in amazing places.
You’ve done a lot of drugs? What were the best and worst experiences?
The best experience – and I’ve taken every drug available – is heroin. On top of that, I was in love so… Of course, it has an impact on your health and on your work, as it’s the only thing that matters; you don’t even need a lover if you have your drug. But drugs open your eyes. Look, it’s no coincidence that so many of the great musicians, and not only in our times, have taken drugs. They don’t give you talent – but if you already have it, the drugs can open new perspectives which you would not have found otherwise. Yeah, I’m very happy I took drugs.
Last year, you spoke of stealing body parts from corpses in a morgue and selling them to medical students for drugs – and you ate the ear of a corpse while on acid.
It’s true, absolutely. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by death and I still am today. With friends, you know, it was quite easy to go into hospital morgues; we would go in and take pictures with dead bodies and steal stuff! It’s not that big of a deal. In Saudi Arabia, there were articles in newspapers saying that because I had offended dead people’s integrity, I was worse than the Kouachi brothers, you know, the guys behind the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks. I have not killed anyone, I have not hurt anyone, so this needs to be put back into perspective. It was a kid’s screw-up, we took drugs, we took acid, we did all sorts of nonsense, but it’s not a big deal!
Would you ever take acid again?
I have no idea! I don’t know what’s going to happen in an hour. I don’t know, I’ll see. I arrived in Paris. I was 14, and in my head, I feel I have not aged! I still want to do stuff, I want to have fun, to meet new people, learn from them, feed from their intellect.
Sex, drugs, rock and roll…
[interrupting] Yeah! Always! [Laughs]
…put them in order, starting with the one which means most to you.
Rock ‘n’ Roll… Sex... Drugs! Because I can’t live without music! It’s non-stop. Sex, I don’t pretend to be a serious girl but sex is love, desire, it’s a man you’re in love with… and drugs come last, I am doing without them for years, but I could not spend a single hour without music.
You made your stage debut three years ago. Is doing theatre very different to movies?
The way we talk in movies is how we talk in the streets: often it’s not particularly nice! So theatre was a revelation for me; when I play roles by the great authors – for example Lucrèce [in Victor Hugo’s prose drama Lucrèce Borgia from the 1800s] – suddenly you have the pleasure of a language that is so well written. Through cinema, I did discover great authors like Pasolini, but theatre... it’s such a pleasure. It’s not even that I enjoy it more, but the texts are almost easier to learn. For example, Lucrèce Borgia was two and a half hours non-stop talking, but the text is so beautiful that it’s easy to memorise. This is especially so with the classical texts. When you have Seneca, Sophocles or Shakespeare – the texts could have been written last month, they never date. That’s how you recognise a great text: they never go out of fashion.
How do you choose roles?
In cinema, it’s the director who attracts me, because the director is the soul of the movie. It’s like with painting, it’s the vision of an artist, it’s his own vision. So, it comes down to a man or a woman whose intellect makes me want to be part of the project, a person whose intellect I respect. In theatre, it’s the same: (Lucrèce Borgia director) David Bobée, for example, seduced me with his intelligence, his curiosity and his culture, and on top of that, I also fell in love with the part.
Do you prepare differently for theatre and film roles?
When I do a film, I don’t read the scripts, I just learn my lines the day before. In theatre, it’s two months of work to learn the play, the choreography – for the staging, for the creation – so it’s completely different work. I like it a lot. But it is the work that I like. For example, with a movie, if there’s no premiere I won’t even see it. And when we do live recordings in theatre, I don’t watch them. I have no interest in seeing the final results, it’s the process that interests me.
What role would you love to have been written for you?
Medea, which Pier Paolo Pasolini did with Maria Callas. Or Lady Macbeth: I love Shakespeare.
Which directors do you most admire? And who would you like to work with?
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ingmar Bergman, Pasolini. I would love to shoot with Sacha Baron Cohen… I love Peter Greenaway, I love that man. English cinema is incredible. And you know, I’ve been married to Rupert Everett, he’s my ex-husband. I was in love with him before I met him, the most beautiful man in the world! I like Emir Kusturica, and of course, Jarmusch, Ferrara, Claire Denis, all of whom I’ve worked with already. But for now, I’m going to leave a message here for Sacha Baron Cohen: I would love to act with him.
You’ve worked with a lot of female directors – was that by design?
No, it was because the subject interested me. I must have done 65 films. I’ve worked with Claire Denis and Virginie Despentes; those are women who have seduced me with their intellect. That’s what pushes me forward. The food for thought is what matters to me. And what’s more, they are politically involved women! When I think of the male directors with whom I’ve shot a film, aside from Abel Ferrara, Jim Jarmusch, Claude Lelouch, all the others are gay directors, and I quite like that, because there are no underlying ideas of being chosen for anything other than they like you as a woman and as a good actress. And I quite like that they make you work more and are more demanding. When I make a film with a woman it’s the same. Suddenly there is no seduction going on, only the work matters. What’s more, I feel that gay directors generally choose subjects that are much more difficult and... almost sleazy, and committed… For me, cinema must make people think: it needs to have a message. I don’t want it to simply be entertainment. You know, it’s like music; I like punk and I like rap because it’s music with a message, it’s not just dance music. If you just fancy listening to dance or if you want to be distracted by seeing a comedy because you’ve had a hard week, I respect that and who am I to say that it’s not interesting? But me, I need an idea, a subject that is going to make people think, so that when you finish the film you ask yourself some questions and you get something from it. You feel enriched.
How did you find working with American directors Ferrara and Jarmusch?
Amazing experiences, as they are each one of a kind, independent directors, and they are true auteurs. There were not big budgets. They were directors with whom I dreamt of working, so I was very proud to be chosen...
You were in trouble with the US consul?
Oh yes, I went to make The Blackout [1997, Ferrara] in the US and I needed a Green Card to work. That same week I had to go to court for a trial regarding drugs. I went to the embassy to do the paperwork. They told me that if I didn’t get convicted, I could have the Green Card. There was no conviction: I was just a user, not a dealer. And yet when I went back, the guy told me they didn’t want my sort on US soil. So I told him, “I don’t give a shit, if I want to go to the US, I’ll go by Canada and fuck you”. So I got up, I got angry, and the guy told me I was inadmissible in the US for seven years. So that’s what happened. I don’t give a shit, fuck him. [Laughs]
You have an eye for fashion...
These days, I only wear Yves Saint Laurent. I am very proud that they asked me to do stuff with them: the clothes are sublime. That being said, when I’m asked questions at fashion shows, I’m not very good at talking about it! I can talk about cinema because I know it so well, but it’s harder for me to talk about fashion.
You ran away from home as a teenager and stole clothes from Yves Saint-Laurent stores in Paris!
Yes of course, because I thought to myself, “Why go shoplifting in shitty stores? If I get caught it will be the same”. So, I went to great shops and dressed like a princess. I remember, on the day of my first wedding (to Jean-François Dalle in 1985) I had no money, so I went to Chantal Thomass’ and I stole a dress, but the security guy saw me and called the police. They took the dress and I spent the whole weekend in jail. I was getting married on the Monday at 3.30pm, but I wanted that dress – it was a simple white dress, very nice. So, I went back to Chantal Thomass’ and I stole it again, successfully this time! So, if Chantal Thomass hears this, well, I stole her dress twice to be beautiful on my wedding day.
Is it more difficult to be an actress than an actor?
Yes, and it’s true in every country! There are always more parts for men. If you’re a 20-year-old actress, it’s fine – but if you are older it’s as if you no longer have anything with which to attract people.
You seem drawn to dark characters?
Yes. Absolutely, I like them better. I see myself more in dramatic tragedies. I’m a fan of Medea [written and directed by Pasolini in 1969 and based on ancient Greek mythology] and Oedipus The King [directed by Pasolini in 1967 and based on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy from 429 BC]. I like drama! And I don’t adapt to the script; there are incredible actors, like De Niro, who transform themselves into something else, and they do so wonderfully well. I’m always chosen to bring who I am into the project, so I don’t transform into anything, it’s the part that comes to me.
So, is the Béatrice Dalle we see on-screen the same in real life?
I don’t think that I’m much different. Like I say, I don’t transform for a film. When you see me on-screen, you see me as I really am.
What’s the greatest achievement of your career?
Trouble Every Day by Claire Denis [in which she plays a cannibal]. Of all the movies I made, this is my favourite. Domain I also love.
How was it working with Eric Cantona on You And The Night?
It was unique. I know Eric since 1997, and it was pretty intimidating to work with him. Not intimidating as such – when you work with one of your closest friends and you have somewhat of a sex scene, it’s weird. [Picture a nearly naked Cantona on all fours in a dungeon, as Dalle lashes her whip]. But it worked really well. And he is such a poetic man. I remember when we saw each other in London, while he was still at Manchester United, everyone in the street would stop to look at him. Women would put their children in his arms. We would go to a club, both of us are dancing and the entire club would stop. It was unbelievable.
Has technology changed cinema for the better or have we sacrificed too much?
For me, HD is awful. Before, we would shoot films in 35mm, the CinemaScope – it was sublime. But now, the images are so technologically perfect it’s like reality! But I don’t care about reality. I go to the movies to be somewhere else – in a dream. I’m telling you: the images from the big budget movies, they’re not making me dream. When L’Atalante  with Michel Simon was shot, special effects did not exist; but there are scenes when the sailor is underwater with a mermaid, and it just allows your imagination to develop. I remember visiting [Serbian filmmaker] Emir Kusturica when he was shooting Underground in Yugoslavia, where they only had electricity for two hours every day and the studios were shit. And yet, look at this guy’s films; they are the most beautiful films in the world. When you don’t have the means at your disposal, you have to create and invent them, and often it’s much more poetic.
Theatre, cinema, television, streaming – as the platforms change, do we risk losing something important?
I find it very sad. Fellini felt that way. He said just that, when televisions entered people’s homes. The stars are so small on a television screen. But when you saw Lauren Bacall on the big screen, it was always giant, always beautiful, always sophisticated. Or Marlene Dietrich! And now, with paparazzi taking photos of stars eating or on the beach – in France it’s bad but in England it’s worse – it demystifies everything. I think Fellini was right; when TV arrived, actors were made to fit into a small screen, and so the magic was lost and the movie stars gone.
Gerard Depardieu said that US movies “packed with special effects are games, and the rest of the movie is struggling to exist”...
It’s somewhat true. It’s also true about language. In many of today’s French and German movies, they speak in English. If I see an African movie, I want to hear an African language. If I see a French movie, I want to hear people speaking French. Otherwise, in 20 years, there will only be big budget movies in English with a lot of special effects and nothing else. I find that really sad.
Depardieu also said that France is “at risk of becoming a Disneyland for foreigners, populated by fools”…
It’s already like that. Look at the city [pointing]: it’s sublime! But it has become so expensive. For example, in Berlin, you can still rent a decent flat, and look at how many people, how many artists go there, and it inspires emulation. In Paris, everything is so expensive that unless you’re loaded, it’s only for tourists, and it’s a bit like Disneyland. It’s still a beautiful city but there’s not much going on. Of course, there are amazing museums but the cultural life is living on its past – a glorious past – but we should keep moving forward every day.
Hot Press was in Paris a few years ago with Bruce Springsteen when he said, “You can never go wrong with being pissed off in rock ‘n’ roll”. Does art need more passion and anger in today’s world?
Yes, because now there’s so much censorship and everything is forbidden! For starters, you can’t smoke anymore; it’s not art, but you can’t smoke, you can only eat vegan, you can’t eat gluten, you can’t fuck anymore because there’s AIDS, you can’t talk anymore. For fuck’s sake! In the 1990s, you had the right to do anything! And now, when some foreign leaders come to France or Italy, there are statues that are covered: we did that during the Inquisition, when Botticelli was told to stop painting because Venus was naked. It is just unbearable. You know I always talk about Pasolini – he did a film called Salò, which is the most beautiful anti-fascist film we’ll ever do. It is extremely hard to watch – he was inspired by The 120 Days Of Sodome by Sade – but today we could never do such a film! If Pasolini was born today, or in the 60’s, he could not have done his films. That I find very sad.
With Emmanuel Macron, perhaps there’s a revolution of sorts starting in France – a counter-balance to Donald Trump?
I’m not engrossed in politics, but when the US elected Barack Obama as president, I thought “Fuck, good, they’ve elected a black president”; I didn’t think the US would do it, and I dare to hope it would be possible in France. Obama was like a rock star; suddenly, it was as if The Rolling Stones were in town! So how is it possible to go from Barack Obama to Donald Trump? Even though I’m not politically motivated, I’m very glad Macron is President. I couldn’t believe that France would have had a Far-Right government, and he seems interested in culture – so, I’m good with that.
What do you think of Brexit?
[Groans] Why? Why the English? How is it possible that a big country like England does not want to be European? It’s surreal. And what does wanting to get out of Europe actually mean? It’s unbelievable. That it came from the English is weird. It was a big surprise, a big fuck-up.
France has been rocked by terrorism recently…
Of course, it’s horrible what happened, but what can we do? It’s tragic that people do what the Crusaders did, slaughter people in the name of God. We should not kill people in the name of God. Whether you are a Jew, Muslim or Catholic, the conversation should only be about love and protecting each other. And it’s a shame that it leads to people hating Muslims. It’s not Muslims! It’s just crazy people who do this, Muslims have nothing to do with it.
We’re in Paris, so in a nod to Proust let’s finish with a quick-fire round… What sound or noise do you love?
I love the noise of the thunderstorm. It’s so beautiful, because it’s sensual during the summer when it’s hot. I find thunderstorms very sexy.
Your most surprising skill?
I am the world’s specialist on Kurt Cobain!
Your greatest virtue and biggest fault?
I am kind. My biggest fault is that I don’t give a shit about anything. [Laughs]
Do you ever get demotivated?
There’s nothing that demotivates me. I have the message, “Always stay a little warrior” tattooed on my back.
How would you like to be remembered?
As the most beautiful woman in the world, and the nicest one! And as the world’s Kurt Cobain expert! [Laughs]
What was the most important moment of your life?
It’s going to be the next one! Soon, tomorrow! I don’t know, all days are important! I have lived an amazing life but I think I still have important things ahead of me. Although… perhaps the meeting with my agent Dominique Besnehard was the most important moment so far!
Do you believe in God?
Yes. To me, Jesus is the sexiest man in the world. There’s Jesus and Kurt. You see, I even put Jesus before Kurt Cobain. [Laughs]
What is your earliest memory?
I was fascinated by religion, by Christ, and I am still in love with Christ today. I’m a believer and practising, so the love of my life is Christ.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake?
I pray. I make business deals with Jesus Christ. Because, for example, if I want something, I’ll ask Jesus; He never says no, so I deal with Him. And also, I only like dead men. I’m in love with Jimmy Hendrix, I’m in love with Mozart, I’m in love with Vivaldi. I’m in love with Kurt Cobain, Jesus, Louis XIV, Tutankhamun. I only love dead men.
Your favourite quality in people?
I like integrity. I can forgive anything, but people need to take responsibility for their actions. I’m not here to judge – I just want people to be responsible, and not be usurpers.
From where do you get inspiration?
Pasolini. He is my lord and master.
Your biggest regret?
I have none! Life is too beautiful and too short! Having regrets is a waste of precious time! I’m proud of everything I have done because I have never done anything for the wrong reasons, never.
When was the last time you cried?
I cried on Saturday, when I was given an award for Best Romantic Actress! Everyone got up and gave me a standing ovation, including actresses who I admire a lot, like Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard. And Dominique Besnehard gave a speech on stage. I was very touched, and so I cried. He is the man of my life – I mean, I’m not married to him but he’s the one who discovered me, he’s the one who made the life I live today.
What makes you angry?
Rudeness, people being mean to each other. I don’t understand being mean, I don’t understand indifference. I hate cynicism also. It’s easy to be cynical and to judge others when everything’s going well for you. That’s why I have such a passion for Pasolini, because when you see his films… for example, Accattone  tells the story of poor people, where women become prostitutes and men become thieves to survive. It’s only in the big American blockbusters that guys are super strong and brave. They are covered in petrol and on fire, but still they continue to chat up women; that’s not how life is. In Accattone, at first, you think all the people are terrible, but the more you watch the film, the more you realise they’re not terrible, they are only human.
I do bad things, and so do you, everyone does. And that’s just what makes us human. And I thought to myself that Pasolini must have been very kind, if that is how you feel when you see his film, that all of a sudden you love the characters. They make do with what little they have. And I told you it’s easy to judge others… on television, you see wars or a country’s reaction to Syrian refugees. They don’t want them! But look where they are living, there’s nothing left, that country does not exist anymore. During the war, some people hid Jews; and it was fortunate that they protected these poor people who were going to be killed. For Syrians, it’s the same. We cannot leave people in that situation. We live on a magical planet. I believe that people forget that each image you see, a ladybug or a leaf on a tree, everything is magical. Paradise? You don’t need to believe in God, the paradise is on Earth. Fuck, let’s open our eyes and love each other for a bit.
Tell me about your upcoming projects.
The most recent film I’ve shot is by Marion Vernoux, but I’m going to be on stage soon in Lutheran Letters by Pasolini with Virginie Despentes and a live band called The Zeros. Then I’ll play Vitalie Rimbaud in a film on Arthur Rimbaud’s life. After that, I’ll probably do King Lear, and then I’ll do a theatre production in China by the same director I worked with on Lucrèce Borgia. So, I have projects for the next year! I’m very happy.