CINEMA / At home with Bebe Dalle: The star of 'Betty Blue' is finally back on our screens. Anthony Lane drops in

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The Independent Culture
AND I thought my place was a mess. I hadn't seen Beatrice Dalle's. Mine has old newspapers and furry cups of tea. Hers has a stuffed cat's head lying on top of the radiator, growing slightly warm. What had she done with the rest of it? Frozen it for later? Maybe it was still running around - behind the 10-foot snakeskin, through the legs of the Barbie dolls, under the rattan sofa salvaged from the ancien regime. This was mess turned into an art-form, like a painter's impression of his own studio. Beatrice called it a brothel, which was going a bit far. It was certainly more than a junk-shop; for one thing, there was too much light, hazing in from the big glassy roof. The people of Paris hardly get a glimpse of Beatrice Dalle, but the sky of Paris can drink its fill all day.

And what does it see? What does she do all day? 'Watch the telly,' she says. 'Have a drink. Eat cake.' At last, the perfect rebuff to Marie Antoinette. She may have a weakness for costume drama, and the occasional 18th- century tapestry, but Beatrice Dalle is right up there with the nouvelle regime, leading from the front. She gives off a kind of fierce informality, both on and off screen: as lush as red velvet, but easily rubbed the wrong way. You tag along helplessly, unsure what's coming next, but determined to be there when it happens. Okay, you think, so she's devil-may-care. Well, may I care? Can I be one of the Dalle devils?

Her latest attack is launched in Night on Earth, directed by Jim Jarmusch. The film is chopped into segments - 'five lives, five stories,' as she puts it. 'They come to an end, but the film goes on.' The whole thing hides under the cover of darkness, hurrying across time- zones like a vampire to escape the day. The middle section is set in Paris, and like all the others turns on the fortunes of a taxi-driver. His unnamed customer is a blind woman, played by Dalle. She sits in the back, mashing her cigarette stubs against the door, throwing the driver's charity back in his face: 'I'm just like you.' Yet that basic kinship is one of the toughest points of contact in the movie, a sudden spark of tolerance. The driver, who earlier on was barracked for being an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, asks her what colour he is. 'I don't give a fuck about colour.'

It's a short, raw and unembarrassed performance, and very nearly a bad one. But it sticks out from the film, and it's what you remember best. Who else but Beatrice Dalle could play someone so difficult yet deeply unbothered? 'Blind people are far more sensitive anyway,' she says. 'If you're blind since birth it doesn't seem like a handicap.' If anything, she makes it seem like an advantage. There was a touch of research down at Les Invalides - 'just technical stuff, how they use their sticks and so on' - but no more than the bare necessities. 'I respect it, but I don't go in for that De Niro stuff; if I'm playing a criminal I'm not going to go and kill people for six months beforehand.'

Wise move. Besides, she needs to conserve her energies for the war against journalists. In April this year, one photographer crossed into her territory and got away with a crunched nose and purple shins. But here she is now, safe on her own ground, and frankly butter wouldn't melt, although it might go away afterwards and have a quiet sizzle. Scrunched up on the sofa, knees under her chin, she looks younger than her 28 years, more like someone just bursting out of her teens. The entire interview takes place against a backing track of Jesus and Mary Chain, jangling out from a boxy stereo on the floor. It's just loud enough to smother some of her already frantic French, which gives me an excuse to lean a little closer.

Her hair has a shocked and punky look, as if she just stabbed her thumb in a lamp-socket. She is also, I am pleased to see, wearing regulation gear; the Dalle uniform will soon be as recognisable as Batman's. From the bottom up: fluffy black ballet pumps, dark tights, very short shorts and a denim jacket open to the waist, revealing an aggressive black bra that may have been welded into place by Anthony Caro. Her cleavage has become part of the French national landscape, like the independent nuclear deterrent or the Gorges du Tarn. Oh, and I almost forgot. The mouth.

To be precise, the teeth behind the mouth, a full octave of ivories. Even though I had spilt my drink on her carpet, she kissed me goodbye at the end, which made me want to spill it all over again. Only a peck on the cheek, but it rewrote the pecking order. If you want to reproduce the effect in your own home, try sticking a watermelon on the end of a Hoover. The teeth somehow push her lips into a ready-made pout, France incarnate; she doesn't need to try, and the camera can simply stare.

Hence the fairy-tale. The soldier's daughter is raised in modest comfort: 'No red sports car outside the door on my 18th birthday, but I didn't go cold and hungry.' One fine day she pulls away from her home in Le Mans and reaches Paris in top gear. A man stops her in the street, takes one look and puts her on the cover of a magazine. This is then seen by Jean- Jacques Beineix, the director of Diva in search of a lead for his new film, Betty Blue. She walks on screen, starts eating a lolly, and the world lies down on her plate.

'Before Betty Blue I knew nothing about cinema. Hadn't seen anything. Directors meant absolutely nothing to me,' she says. 'We shot for three months. They got angry because I was shy and found it terribly difficult to undress.' But hell, she just about managed it. In fact the film kicked off with two minutes of straight love-making, the camera coming closer while she came. As Beatrice says, 'it was the first love story that started out as a sex story', and the effect was very odd - a reverse romance. It was like getting your port and nuts first, then working back to the soup. That was seven years ago, and she's made other films, including La Belle Histoire with Claude Lelouch. But none has been seen here: 'Oh yes, over in England everyone still calls out 'Betty Blue' as I walk down the street. They don't know me in anything else.'

And in France? An innocent question, but the signal for a superb aria of indignation, later timed at 45 seconds without a breath. 'Over here they think they know me so well they don't want to think of me as an actress. I only get asked the personal stuff, and I say to people, you wouldn't dare ask Catherine Deneuve anything like that, would you? I mean okay, she's very chic, a beautiful woman, things like that, but when it's me, all I get is questions about my private life, scandals, incroyablement intime . . . How about a little respect?' And so on. But finally she admits the truth. 'Private life, that's what people are interested in.'

Can you blame them? France went crazy in November 1991, when Beatrice Dalle was caught not just stealing jewellery, but - get this - dropping it into her thigh-length boots. Here was great news, for a nation that still saw her in that first shocking role. Betty Blue wasn't dead after all] She was alive and well, and doing her stuff] Dalle's lawyer kept her out of jail but stoked up the fires, with talk of an ex- husband who tried to kill himself. She shrugs it coolly away now, as if reading out a story: 'We knew each other for a year beforehand, then we married for a year, and that was that.' Out comes the teenager again, dreaming of love ever after: 'If I spent one night with the most seductive man in the world, where would that get me?' Well, the answer is probably 'lunchtime next day', but to her it means zero, une aventure de nul. 'But making love with someone you know . . .' I know, I know.

The charm blows you away, but Beatrice Dalle seems to survive on a dangerous emotional diet, her own blend of frail and pushy. Betty Blue was the most inflammatory debut since And God Created Woman, and it changed the meaning of the sex-kitten. To Bardot, it meant toying with her men like bits of string; to Dalle, it meant fangs and claws. She bites her lines off as if chomping a carrot, all that sweet self-possession held together by rage.

She kindly brings me up to date on everything insupportable. The films of Eric Rohmer: 'all those 16-year-old girls sitting round talking about their problems. Making a whole career out of that, shit . . .' Minders on set: 'three or four people looking after you all day, telling you what to wear, do this, do that . . .' And of course the phone, although she breaks off from telling me this to answer it. Three times in all, each caller greeted with a blissful yelp: 'Allo bebe]' I sit there trying not to listen, not to look at the postcard of Jesus inside her Filofax, not to stare at the nude paintings of Beatrice Dalle pinned to her own walls.

She was naked the first time we ever saw her, and however much she hates it, the myth of the bare Beatrice is here to stay. Directors react to it in ugly ways: for Beineix she gouged out one eye, for Jarmusch she is blind since birth. Does beauty always make us behave like beasts, or is the actress wounded from the start? 'That's my nature,' Dalle says. 'Vulnerable, beaten-down roles. I may not look it, I go around reassuring everyone, warm and smiling, but really . . . I want to play the feelings that I've felt, that I already know. Of course my films are full of things from my life, what else can I do?' It hardly sounds like acting at all. Jim Jarmusch had problems simply getting her to rehearse. 'Why should I rehearse?' she asked. 'I don't rehearse my life.'

Beatrice Dalle is not a great actress, but that doesn't matter a damn. Cinema shines with stars of maximum wattage but limited gifts. Whenever Dalle talks about Rita Hayworth, 'simplement sexy', or Monroe going off to Korea to wow the boys, you can tell what sort of company she would like to keep. How many films she will make, let alone good ones, is hard to tell. Her natural habitat is, she says, 'inside her own head', and the trademark of a good movie is 'first-degree shock'. But I settled for second best: two hours of calm talk inside her own flat, high up in the 18th arrondissement. When Jarmusch wanted Beatrice Dalle for his film, he walked up to her at Cannes and said: 'I adore you.' Surely the right approach.

'Night on Earth' (15) opens on 31 July. The free screening for readers of the 'Independent on Sunday' is now fully booked.

(Photograph omitted)

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