Unpredictable as ever, Béatrice Dalle shows up on time. Well... two hours late actually, but since there's been a genuine mistake on the part of her office she is morally punctual. Even so, as she walks over to join me in the bar of a small Paris hotel, her arms are raised and she is semaphoring two sentiments rarely associated with her: embarrassment and apology.
"My stomach turned over when I heard your message on my mobile, asking where I was. Because people have this image of me, you know – always late. Sometimes scary."
She is still best known in Britain for her first film, Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue (1986), a cult movie which appeared to confirm certain British misapprehensions concerning French women, for instance that they instinctively prefer to renovate guttering in the nude. Dalle is a highly unusual figure in that, while she has long been regarded as one of France's most desirable icons, some aspects of her character are not traditionally indicative of femininity. Her well-known ability to deliver a decent right hook, her candid revulsion whenever she's asked to hold a baby, and her past association with class A drugs are all instincts you might more readily associate with a male rock drummer.
Dalle has seldom been accused of being excessively demure; before we met, one colleague had described her to me as "a walking bomb". Her fondness for mischief has inspired unease verging on panic in the medium of live television. Interviewed at the reception for her recent horror film A l'intérieur (Inside, 2007) she was asked where she first met the co-director Julien Maury.
"In a chatroom on a bestiality website," she replied. "You cannot say that," advised the interviewer. She already had. What did she think of the film? "A nightmare," said Dalle, clearly not meaning it. And the actors? "Odious." Irritated by a question from the veteran television journalist Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, she said: "Well, what about all those love letters you sent me? Why don't we talk about them?" reducing "PPDA", a broadcaster whose profile is roughly similar in France to Andrew Neil's here, to a blushing silence.
This afternoon, though, she is the picture of amiability. When she smiles, which is often, she reveals a gap in her front teeth that is less Brigitte Bardot than Terry-Thomas. Whereas it was said that the British actor kept the gap to remind people of the hyphen in his name, with Dalle I think it's a deliberate attempt to subvert any notion of her as a stereotyped object of desire. She's 46 now, but later, when we walk down the street, every head will still turn to observe the animated figure in the low-cut black dress.
She fumbles in her bag. A direct translation of what she says next would be: "I'm gasping for a cig."Never mind, she says. She's already made me wait. "I'll get some later."
We're alone in the room, except for a member of the hotel staff, but this is her regular bolt hole, 50 yards from her modest apartment, and it's clear that there would be no question of the smoking laws being imposed on this woman.
"I smoke because I enjoy it. If anyone said they minded, I'd put the cigarette out straight away."
Her hands are larger than you might expect.
"Yes," she says. "I'm the daughter of the Mona Lisa and a garage mechanic."
Dalle speaks little English. She might understand more had she not socked an American consul in the late 1990s, a typically impulsive action which meant that she couldn't return to the US for several years.
I translate an abridged version of the opening paragraph from her first British interview. Conducted by a male reporter for the Daily Mirror in 1986, it has the headline: "The New Bardot."
"The tall dark girl... in her skimpy blue dress... stuck her thumb in her mouth and began to giggle. It's the sexiest sound I have ever heard... knee-weakening... Oh my God... her generous, muscled thighs..."
"This man," I suggest, "is in what might politely be called a state of acute sexual arousal."
Dalle unleashes her low, sonorous laugh. "It sounds like it."
"That Mirror report – actually your whole life – reminds me of a line from an old Gérard Depardieu film: 'You know the trouble with very beautiful women? They wreak havoc.' How old were you when you first noticed that you were attracting an unusual degree of attention?"
"Ever since I can remember. I do not consider myself beautiful. But I've always attracted attention, it's true, ever since I was very young."
She's taking a break from the seaside resort of Le Touquet, where, leading an impressive cast which includes Iggy Pop, she's shooting L'Etoile du Jour (Day Star), the new film by the highly regarded director Sophie Blondy.
Dalle, who lives alone here in Paris, says she misses the camaraderie on set. Like her friend and fellow actor Eric Cantona, she has based her life on the principle of ferociously defended individual freedom. Unlike Cantona, she betrays no interest in, or commitment to, conventional family life. The most intense recent publicity she has generated relates not to her work, but to her marriage, on 3 January 2005, to Guénaël Meziani, who was then in prison, charged with illegally detaining, beating and raping a former girlfriend.
Béatrice Dalle met her current husband on the set of Gilles Blanchard's film Tête d'Or, filmed in Ploemeur prison, Brittany. Of the cast of 27, only Dalle was not an inmate. Meziani played the male lead and, she says, "impressed me immediately with his extreme intelligence". Shortly after their marriage, he was sentenced to 12 years.
In May 2009 Meziani, who had been released on parole a few weeks earlier, was re-arrested following two alleged rows between the couple, the second of which occurred in the street. The police were called and Meziani was returned to jail.
"Where is he now?"
"He's out; he was released in February."
It was the newspaper Le Parisien which first publicised reports of supposed altercations between the couple. There followed an uncomfortable interview between Dalle and the Europe 1 radio network.
"That was almost trial by media, wasn't it? They kept insisting that it was you who called the police."
"It was exactly like a trial. I never called the cops," says Dalle, absolutely convincingly. Apart from the utterly sincere tone in which she says this, Béatrice Dalle just isn't a "999" kind of a woman.
"And you're still together?"
"Yes. Although we live separately." (Meziani is currently in Avignon.)
Dalle has had three long-standing relationships. She was 19 at the time of her first marriage, to an aspirant painter, Jean-François Dalle. That alliance lasted three years. According to published accounts, Jean-François committed suicide several months after the couple separated. Béatrice kept his name. She had a relationship over approximately a decade with Didier Morville, better known as Joeystarr, singer with the rap group NTM, and a short but intense fling with the English actor Rupert Everett who, as she concedes, did not previously enjoy a reputation as a lady's man. She says she has never lived with a long-term partner.
"When you don't live with someone, you see them when you want to; like proper lovers. I mean... a guy in the house?" She laughs. "I couldn't stand that."
One of her favourite quotations, she says, is that, "Fidelity is just another form of idleness."
"How exactly did they decide to send your second husband back to prison?"
"A photographer took this picture, where he appeared to be threatening me in the street. Because he was on parole, they locked him up again. If they'd taken a video they'd have seen that there was someone behaving maliciously: not him, but me. What the court basically declared was that they would rather risk an injustice towards him than put me at risk. I'm not quoting them literally, but that was the spirit of what they said. It was bullshit. They talked about violence. I said, 'OK. If there was violence, where are my injuries?'"
"How do you feel about the newspaper that printed this?"
"It was some guy at Le Parisien. I can't remember his name. But I have prayed that his children die of some agonising and protracted illness, and that his wife gets kidnapped by a serial killer."
Such candour is rare in an age when French stars are noted for their reticence, especially when it comes to their president. "Sarkozy," Dalle told a TV interviewer, "can go screw his mother." The president, she adds (citing a remark made to her by another French icon, whose name she gives in confidence) "is, as X once told me, Jean-Marie Le Pen in a mask."
Béatrice Dalle is everything I hadn't expected: considerate, approachable, straightforward and very funny. At the same time there is occasionally a kind of dark flash in her expression – it's reminiscent of what Sir Alex Ferguson once referred to as the Cantona-esque "glazed eye": an indication of courage verging on psychosis in certain footballers – which suggests that it would be a really poor idea to mess with her.
I explain, adopting brace position, that I believe we have watched her learn how to act in public. She was an ingénue when she made her debut as an aberrant dark-haired terror in Betty Blue, whose frequent explicit scenes, she says, are not a happy memory, "because I am naturally quite bashful." Dalle gave a memorable performance as a blind taxi passenger in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (1991), and was at her most captivatingly subversive in Claude Lelouch's epic La Belle Histoire, released the following year. Two years ago, she delivered a tour de force, playing Nadia, an alcoholic maths teacher, in Patric Chiha's film, Domaine. The idea of Dalle performing classical theatre would have been ridiculed 20 years ago. Now, it seems her logical future.
"That," she says, "is what I dream of doing."
"I think what you did in Domaine took you on to another level. Which is weird, given that you've always said that you never read a page before accepting a part."
"Yes, but when you work with great directors..."
"Wasn't that Chiha's first film?"
"Doesn't matter. I've never read a screenplay in advance. You trust the artist."
Béatrice Dalle's philosophy has been repeatedly rewarded, not least in her collaborations with the French director Claire Denis, who explored the actress's versatility in Trouble Every Day (2001) in which she plays a cannibal, and L'Intrus (The Intruder, 2004), in which her role is Queen of the Northern Hemisphere.
"If you look at an image of a wicker chair," Dalle explains, "and it reduces you to tears, it's because it was painted by Van Gogh. Seeing a wicker chair in an Ikea catalogue doesn't make you weep, does it?"
"How do you know?"
"Well maybe you might – yes," Dalle laughs, good-naturedly. "That wouldn't surprise me at all. But you see what I'm saying. When the director is brilliant, there's no risk. You watch television, you hear these rich actors banging on about 'taking risks': it's all bullshit. They lose their temper then smash a hotel lamp and they think they're rebels. There are no rebels in the cinema business."
This aside on hotel-wrecking and violence evokes, with a sort of inevitability, the name of Keith Moon. "Oh, well – him I loved. I love The Who. The thing is that the person who wins a fight is the one who has the mental toughness. Oh, and, er... better make sure you land the first punch."
"And you've hit people?"
"Me? Yes. Fairly regularly."
"Oh," she laughs, "a bit of everything. All sorts."
"Do you know, I don't think I've ever hit a journalist. Oh. No. Hang on. I did slap one. And I hit that consul. I was banned from the US for seven years."
"It was in the late 1990s, around the time when I'd made a film with Abel Ferrara [The Blackout, 1997]. You needed the Green Card; there was all this paperwork. Afterwards I got summoned to the Embassy. They'd read these articles about me using coke." (Dalle has a couple of convictions for possessing small amounts of heroin and cocaine.) "Anyhow, I told him: 'Look, I'm a user not a dealer.' He said: 'We don't want people like you on American soil.' So I said, 'Fuck you' and I slapped him. He said, 'Well done, Mademoiselle Dalle, your file is going to DC.' I said, 'I'll come back any fucking time I like.'"
Béatrice Françoise Odona Cabarrou, though born in Brest in Brittany, grew up 200 miles to the east in Le Mans, which she loathed, with her mother, father and elder sister. In the immediate aftermath of her initial success, in 1986, she spoke of her parents with great affection, explaining how her father was a hero, and how she would like to buy them a house. ("I love my parents," she told the Daily Mail 25 years ago. "I hated Le Mans.")
"You don't talk that much about your family, do you?"
"My childhood doesn't exist. I have no memory of it. I was born when I was 14, when I ran away [for good] to Paris." (She grew up in Les Sablons, a group of two-dozen high-rise blocks in the south-east of Le Mans.)
"Didn't you once say you felt like 'Dolly Parton trapped in a tower block'?"
"I said that about my mother."
Her father, she is prepared to reveal, was an ex-sailor of Basque origins.
"You once said you had a 'fascist education'. Are you talking about school?"
"No. My father."
"He was right-wing?"
"You could say that."
"That philosophy doesn't seem to have affected you."
"Any time they tried to influence me, I did the opposite. It worked so well, I'm married to an Arab." (Meziani is of Algerian descent.) "I wasn't unhappy as a girl. I had friends. But where my family was concerned, I felt that the stork had dropped the baby down the wrong chimney."
"Is your father still alive?"
"I don't know. I have no contact with any of them."
I tell her that I find this extremely difficult to believe.
"What about your mother? I read someone speculating about a deathbed reconciliation."
"No. She's not... I don't know if she's alive or dead."
It's her way of keeping certain doors firmly closed, and there is nothing in French archives that sheds any light on her stated alienation from her family: a pity, not least because her childhood experience might offer some insight as to where she got the idea that violence was a handy tool to have in your locker.
"What was your parents' reaction when you left?"
I suspect Dalle is familiar with a line by the 19th century poet Jules Renard, who grew up in her neck of the woods. "Not everybody," Renard wrote, "is lucky enough to be born an orphan."
"It's a weird world," I suggest, "when you don't know or care where your parents are, while millions of people shell out good money trying to contact the dead."
"Hey, what are you, a writer or a reconciliation counsellor? I've lived 25 years without them." k
Dalle recently agreed to collaborate with a writer on an authorised biography, but pulled out once she'd read the completed text, which gave her intimate life and childhood more prominence than she was comfortable with. She is currently embroiled in legal proceedings with the publishers, who are demanding the return of their advance of €160,000, the sum which encouraged her improbable participation in the project.
The actress has made – and spent – considerable sums of money in the course of her career. ("I ruined myself, financially," she tells me, with reference to her past expenditure on cocaine.)
There is a single, rather anodyne, post by a fellow student on a French equivalent of Friends Reunited which recalls Dalle's time at the Collège Alain Fournier in Le Mans. According to a former teacher at the school: "Everyone knew Béatrice, because she did everything she could to seek attention. Aside from her taste for provocation, especially in the way she dressed [these being her punk years], she wasn't a bad pupil. She definitely suffered from the fact of being 'different'. I can remember the other kids lining up to stare at her when she walked into the playground. And her mother used to wear the kind of leopard-skin coat popular with old girls on the Rue St Denis in Paris. [This is no compliment.] People in that area just didn't behave like that; they weren't ready for Béatrice. I can understand why she might harbour some resentment."
Once installed in Paris, Dalle survived, she says, with the help of strangers, and a bit of shoplifting. At one point she worked in a novelty shop in the large central mall at Les Halles.
"For one day. The owner trapped me in a room and tried to have sex with me. I said 'Sure, let's do whatever you want but tomorrow, not today, because my boyfriend's coming to pick me up.' He believed me. They had this really great jacket in the store. I asked if I could borrow it. He said OK. I never went back. I lived mainly off shoplifting until I went into acting."
"Who did you steal from?"
"Yves Saint Laurent. Dior. Jean Paul Gaultier. The way I figured it was, if you risk getting caught, why steal from a corner store?"
"There was a well-publicised incident in 1992 where you were arrested with handfuls of jewellery in your boots. You were already famous then. It made me think of that Oscar Wilde quotation: 'Crime is to the lower classes what art is to us: simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.'"
"That's a wonderful piece of writing but it wasn't like that. I was with... he wasn't a blood relation, but the guy I would call my brother. He took the stuff. If they'd found it on him, because of his police record, he'd have been in real trouble. So I took the blame."
Her entry into the cinema was the stuff of teenage dreams. Walking around Paris, she caught the eye of a photographer and wound up on the cover of Photo magazine. France's most famous casting director, Dominique Besnehard, saw the issue and only weeks later Dalle had the starring role in Betty Blue, by Beineix, acclaimed director of Diva and The Moon in the Gutter.
That success, she explains, caused the failure of her first marriage to Jean-François Dalle. She says they got married on a Monday because three days earlier she was apprehended stealing a wedding dress (the story, which has become part of the Received Standard Version of Beatrice Dalle's life, inspires an episode in Lelouch's La Belle Histoire.) Locked up for the weekend, she claims that on the Monday at 9am she returned to the shop and stole the dress again.
Jean-François, she says, became bitterly unhappy once she became famous.
"I was with him before I went into films. He couldn't handle the fact that I was more successful than him. He was jealous. And yet I'd given my life to him. I said, 'If I make you feel that inferior' – because he was very talented – 'then I'm off. Life isn't a competition.' So I left."
"Is that why he killed himself?"
"No." A pause. "In fact I don't know whether he is dead."
This is the first I've heard of this.
"In every archived article I've seen, and on Wikipedia, it says that you split up and then, some months later, he committed suicide."
"Well, the archives may say that, but it's not true. He didn't die. He tried to kill himself, but he survived."
"Is he still alive?"
"I don't know."
"I believe," I say, assuming that a firearm was involved, "that it's sensible to fire upwards, through the palate."
"Were you together, when this happened?"
"We'd just split up."
"How long after you left did he try to kill himself?"
"Less than a week. A matter of days. But the way he'd been talking... it's like that thing Kurt Cobain said; every breath he took, hurt. He was so unhappy."
"Did you go and see Jean-François afterwards?"
"Yes. In a hospital ward. He didn't recognise me. He was in a coma."
"So where is he now?"
"I don't know."
Rupert Everett, her lover after she walked out of her first marriage, writes, in his 2006 memoir Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, "I knew I would never find another girl as good as Béa. She was perfect. When she was with you, she was with you. She had faith and you could do no wrong; until... that attention would be switched off, like an electric light. It had happened to her husband. It would happen to me. No one left Béa."
"I'm not going to call you a femme fatale, but it's fair to say that a lot of people around you have disappeared."
"That friend I called my brother committed suicide. He hanged himself. Eight years ago."
"And your elder sister?"
"I never see her. I never see anybody."
Her intimate friends are very few – one is a little-known television actress – and fierce in their loyalty and discretion.
Dalle was closely bonded to Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gérard. Guillaume's autobiography, published in 2004, describes in some detail his appetite for cocaine and his troubled relationship with his father which is acted out in a film, if you can bear to watch it, called Aime Ton Père. (Love Your Father). In 2003 Guillaume had a leg amputated as the result of a motorcycle accident; he died in 2008, from viral pneumonia, a condition aggravated by his tenacious commitment to hedonism.
"That book," I tell Dalle, "was so sad that I could hardly finish it."
"Guillaume – he was my friend, not my lover – was probably the gentlest and the most beautiful man I have ever met. People think he wasted his life. I'd say quite the reverse. He loved life more than anyone I know. Since 13 October 2008 I have been in mourning."
"How did you react when you heard the news?"
"I lost my head completely. I went crazy. I didn't believe in ghosts, but Guillaume appeared to me. He was much smaller than he had been in life. If it had been a full-sized apparition I'd have had a heart attack."
"And yet," I suggest, "unlike many of your friends, you have managed to maintain some kind of equilibrium."
"Well, I had a lot of trouble when I was taking coke. At the same time I had a strong constitution and I knew the drug well. I would never have offered cocaine to anybody who didn't want it. Because I know the possible consequences. That said, my life is my own."
Not many people manage to take heroin and keep working.
"I only ever snorted heroin. I don't drink alcohol. As I say, I have an unusually robust constitution. I'll bury them all. Everybody dies," Dalle adds, "and I keep going. I'm hungry. You want to eat?"
It's mid-afternoon. k
She disappears into the street and comes back with cheese baguettes, iced tea and cigarettes. Though Dalle is, by all accounts, not drowning in money, in all the time I spend with her she will never accept payment for anything.
"You do know that by now you should really have three kids and a mortgage..."
"Children? That's the last thing I want. When I drink Coca-Cola too fast, and I feel it fizz as it hits hit my stomach, that feeling scares me, so imagine me having a kid..."
"You mean the pain of childbirth?"
"Not just that, but the whole physical experience of a baby... nappies... ugh."
"You've talked about being disgusted by the experience of holding your elder sister's child."
"Yes, and then there's all the responsibility. I'm a woman who lives alone. I want to be able to sit at home for hours on end, smoking, listening to Mozart on headphones, at maximum volume. That's what I love. I hate it when the music stops."
"Is it fair to say that you have chosen men who are – I won't say threatening – but... what's the word: trouble?"
("I was gay," Rupert Everett explained, "but incompatibility is the agonising driving force behind many dangerous liaisons.")
"I can see how you could get that impression," Dalle says. "A lot of people thought I was with Didier [Morville, aka Joeystarr] just because he's a rap artist. People thought he was this big thug who went around hitting everyone."
It's an understandable misconception. Morville's lengthy police record includes prison sentences of two months for physically harassing an air stewardess, six months for assaulting an ex-girlfriend, and other offences including spitting on a police officer, attacking a car with a machete and punching a monkey on a TV show. This last offence, though it did not constitute a criminal offence, served to confirm the singer's reputation as somewhat headstrong.
"It was his character that attracted me," Dalle says. "I spent 10 years with Didier and I never saw him treat anybody with disrespect. If you treated him politely [a skill the monkey had clearly not mastered], he'd be fine. Otherwise, OK, he'd punch your lights out."
She then volunteers the names of the three men she finds most compelling: a triumvirate whose identities you could spend a lifetime trying to guess, and never come close. "The Pope," she says, "Vladimir Putin and Prince Charles."
"Prince Charles. I loathed Diana on sight. I was so jealous of her."
"You don't mind that he talks to plants? It's something of a tradition in the royal family; I believe it goes back to George III..."
"Well, I talk to birds so I think we'd hit it off. I just love the man. From the day I was born I thought I was made to be the love of Prince Charles's life."
"Possibly a bit unrealistic..."
"You may be right. In any case, he never calls."
We meet again a few days later on the set of her current film, L'Etoile du Jour, at Merlimont, a short drive from Le Touquet. Dalle plays a gypsy clairvoyant in a travelling circus; the set is a series of carnival-style caravans clustered around a tent pitched on the beach. She heads a highly distinguished cast; Iggy Pop (who has finished his scenes and left) plays the mute good conscience of the male lead.
The relaxation area for the principal actors consists of three rooms in a first-floor apartment building overlooking the sea. Dalle has her own dressing-room, but for most of the time, in the days I spend there, her door is left open and everyone is welcome to wander in and out. Unusually, there is a lot of laughter and no sense of rank or self-importance: it's probably the friendliest film shoot I have ever seen, and that spirit of equality radiates from Dalle holding court while her friends Guy and Jean Charles adjust her hair and make-up. Nicolas Derouet, her agent, who is here with his young daughter Judith, is modest, helpful and considerate – adjectives which, in his profession, are not used every day.
"Look." Dalle shows me a still picture on her mobile. "That's a scene from The Seventh Seal by [the Swedish director Ingmar] Bergman." The actress, curiously for someone who by her own admission is not a big reader, has an acute and dependable sensibility when it comes to words.
"It's my favourite film ever. When I first saw it, I thought Bergman must have adapted some classical text. But he wrote it himself. I love Bergman. Bergman and Pasolini. And [the Marseille-born surrealist playwright] Antonin Artaud. He gave voice to thoughts that I have, but I can't express. He was so brilliant, so intelligent."
I explain how surprised I am by the atmosphere on this film. It's unusual that the biggest star on a set should also be the most approachable.
"Because I don't think," I tell her, "that fame has ever done anybody any good."
"Oh, I don't agree with that at all. I love the life I have now. People come to see me; they stop me in the street. Whenever I see so-called stars turn away a young person who is asking for a picture or an autograph, I tell them: 'Listen, the day those kids are no longer there, that is when you can start your whining. You think acting is hard?.' " Another long, resonant laugh. "Try another job like, er, I don't know..."
"Right. These guys are millionaires. They're pathetic. I wake up every morning and thank God I'm doing what I am."
In the final scene I see her shoot, she's hanging out washing – garments in traditional Romany-coloured fabrics – on a makeshift clothesline, her eyes looking out to sea, tears running down her face. Another member of the cast shows me a still picture he's taken of the scene. "My God," he whispers. "She's une bombe." ("Stunning.") It's only when he says this that I realise that, whereas most actors are likened to distant astral bodies, Dalle is almost always talked about in terms of explosives. Even Rupert Everett called her, "Joan of Arc – the suicide-bomber version."
We say goodbye; she's off into town, then off to Paris, and Avignon, and her real life. Watching her go, I can't help wondering, given her turbulent history, whether this extraordinary woman has yet to unleash her most spectacular and alarming detonation.