FILM / A heart-stopping performance: Was Yves Montand the victim of over-acting? Adrian Dannatt reports

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FILM directors are routinely accused of murdering their scripts or making a killing at the box office. Rarer is the accusation of manslaughter itself. Yet Jean-Jacques Beineix, whose film IP5 opened last week in Paris to a genuine succes de scandale, is being blamed not just for a casual slaying but for the termination of France's greatest cultural monument, Yves Montand.

It is one thing to dispose of a screenwriter, as Tim Robbins does in The Player. That hardly counts as a crime in cinema. But to do away with a national hero means trouble. And Montand was never merely a star; both as a popular singer and as an actor, he embodied the French soul and was regarded almost as the communal property of the nation, a symbolic figurehead of Gallic savoir-faire and grace. When he died last year at the age of 70, the rumours began and have continued unabated.

For Montand was still filming IP5 (the title stands for 'Ile de Pachyderme 5') when he died, of cardiac arrest, just after acting out a scene in which his on-screen character, too, died, also of cardiac arrest. Synchronicity indeed. But it was claimed that his death was unnecessary and had been greatly hastened, if not actually caused, by his treatment during the filming.

As the rumours grew, IP5 began to sound like a Hemlock Society boot camp, with poor old Montand put through shocking physical ordeals by the sadistic Beineix. As the film still had not even been edited, it was hard to tell if the stories had any substance, or were merely being put about by a disgruntled key grip, subsequently fired from the production. Whatever the facts, an everyday legend - just the sort of populist mythology that cinema generates and feeds off - had been firmly established: Beineix rubs out Montand.

With the release of the film and the start of a full-scale press campaign, the issue has returned to the fore. Indeed it has become the focus of all discussion of the movie. On Bouillon Culture, the TV show run by Bernard Pivot of Apostrophe fame, Beineix was back in the hot seat as Pivot subtly demanded how he would answer those who, 'assez ridicule', accused him of killing off Yves Montand. A long, embarrassing silence followed when, despite the diplomacy of Pivot's phrasing, Beineix simply refused to answer the question. In every interview thereafter Beineix has found himself cast as the director on the defensive, the director defends himself, the director refutes all charges.

Curiously, the initial wave of hostility, and the threatened pickets outside cinemas, have turned into a sort of sympathy. Beineix is supposed to have been so traumatised by the double-death of Montand that he himself had a brief mental breakdown and nearly destroyed the IP5 negative. Even though it was nothing to do with him, Beineix has admitted that he began to feel like a murderer, or like God, and that it is hard to get someone to enact their own death days before the real thing, and in an identical manner, and not feel a little queasy.

This latest scandal fuels the Beineix legend as France's hottest young director - although the ultimate hip nipper, who burst out of nowhere with the slick thriller Diva, is now a rather surprising 46. Beineix specialises in making a hit followed by a dud. Diva led to the disastrous Moon in the Gutter, followed by the enormously successful Betty Blue and then the miserable Rosalie and the Lions. Following this pattern, IP5 should be a masterpiece. In fact it is a confused, unfunny and numbingly over-extended epic.

A sort of glossy eco-parable, it follows two young slum kids, a rapper and a graffiti artist, as they get lost on their first visit to the French countryside, only to meet up with the mysterious and magical King of the Forest - played, of course, by Montand, as the very personification of La France Profonde. Montand embraces trees, communes with the elements and, naturally, introduces the hardened city kids to the meaning of nature, a French version of Robert Bly's Iron John.

In fact, if it were not for the unnerving parallel of Montand's death, the film would be totally without interest and merely come across as the sort of vehicle that could kill off any actor, or at least their career. 'He is dead or he isn't dead?' are the first words Montand speaks on screen, and the odd sense of premonition, if not resurrection, continues throughout, culminating in the slow, and extremely realistic, deathbed scene, a heart attack mimed out like a dress rehearsal for the real thing a few days later.

For Montand's fans (meaning the whole French nation) there is the shock of seeing the macho sex idol of Wages of Fear and Z transformed into a pitifully old man, a haggard dotard whose face looks like death itself, the skeletal skull pushing through the flesh. When this frail, elderly creature has to strip to his Y- fronts and walk into a freezing lake, or proffer himself before a raging storm, one can't help but feel it's all a little unnecessary, if not plain cruel. When Montand is violently head-butted by the young hero, the audience gasps with an understandable sense of shock - what way is this to treat an old man just weeks away from death, let alone a national icon? But, as Beineix points out in his defence, Montand was not forced into any of this: indeed, man that he was, he relished physical exertion.

IP5 is loaded with quasi-religious symbolism. Montand seems to be a pagan deity, or even Jesus, and in this context the film has a fascination, part morbid, part genuine magic, as we watch a dead man playing out his death and then being brought to life again on the screen before us. The symbolic relation of film and death becomes the core of the work, as it did with Wim Wenders's Lightning Over Water, which recorded the death of the American director Nicolas Ray, and which was also accused of insensitivity.

But IP5 more closely resembles On Golden Pond, both in its ruralist sentimentality and in that final performance by Henry Fonda, acting out what he must also have known to be the last role of his life. By sheer chance Beineix has created a metaphysical mystery out of the most unpromising material. His film is also Number One at the French box office.

(Photographs omitted)