The recent Blu-ray release of Betty Blue from Cinema Libre Studios as part of their The Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection takes me back to my formative movie-watching days in Ann Arbor in the mid-'80s. I saw this film at the Michigan Theater in 1986 and reveled in the raw sexuality of the relationship and admired the way the couple seemed to rebel against society. I found Betty (Beatrice Dalle) irresistable and fell in love with her gap-toothed smile. I was 19 years old and I thought that this was the most romantic film of its day. Now, 25 years later, I'm viewing it through much different eyes and I almost don't recognize that this is the film I saw back then.
There are possibly three things that the casual fan knows about Betty Blue:
1. Jean-Jacques Beineix's first film is a masterpiece. He debuted with Diva (1981) a few years before Betty Blue. The film was a colorful masterpiece that incorporated parts of DePalma and Hitchcock storytelling with the filmmaking techniques of Truffaut. It's a fast-paced action film that makes opera very attractive.
2. The iconic poster is better known than the film. Even fans who don't know that it's even a French film seem to recognize the film poster. It's got the beach house from the beginning of the film with a yellow sunset over the ocean at the bottom of the poster that fades into a deep blue sky. Above the simple cursive white title is the black and white image of a slightly pouting Beatrice Dalle, hands framing her face, looking up and into the distance.
3. The movie starts with a long sex scene. It's true that this iconic scene sets the tone for the film. But it seems much less shocking that it did back in the mid-'80s and that might be when put in context of the rest of the film. What's more shocking than the love scene in general is the sheer amount of male full-frontal nudity. While not shy about it, most French films don't linger on it the way this one seems so casual about it. It's never shocking or gratuitous as much as a curious aside.
It's impossible to talk about the film without examining that opening scene. The film doesn't fade in or dolly into a shot of the two lead characters on a bed making love. It snaps open to the lovemaking already in progress. There's a voice over by Zorg (Jean-Hughes Anglade) - he and Betty (Beatrice Dalle) had just met a week previous and "We made love every night. The forecast was for storms."
The scene unfolds slow and steady for a sex scene. But it's there that we realize that it's much more. There isn't a score underneath the scene and the camera starts in a room outside the bedroom. The camera slowly, painfully slowly, inches forward, framing the couple between a beaded curtain on the sides and a picture of the Mona Lisa hanging on the bedroom wall above them. It's the natural sounds - the voyeuristic feel to the shot - the abandon of the moment - it's these things that hint at the depth of passion these two have already developed.
The first third of the film takes place in the beach town. It's here that we start to see the themes that will be expanded through the film. Beineix uses three main color pallettes - yellows, blues and reds. They don't follow general thematic uses - I think that would be too easy considering the story. The use of color is always bright. The colors aren't mixed - there aren't patterns - just solid colors that fight against the darkness. The sunsets on the beach are a brilliant yellow. When Betty and Zorg paint the beach house, it's with almost neon pink. The beach resort is a very innocent place with the trappings of youth. It's a vacation destination that even has a carousel.
Zorg's peaceful life as a handyman has been changed by the arrival of Betty. Her passion has disrupted everything he had in his life up to that point. She causes him to get fired by his boss and burns his house in order to get his life moving forward. Just as she was about to leave Zorg, Betty found a manuscript for a novel he wrote. She's insistant that he move to the city to get it published. Her passion for his work is exciting and they move onto the next level of their relationship.
It's this transition to the city where I realize that Beineix's been fooling us all with the title of the film. It's not about Betty - she's only the life force that moves the film. She's the catalyst. This film is Zorg's journey into manhood. He's around his late 20s in the film and she's pushing him to find out what his life is going to be. Life in the city is happy at first - much like the sex-laden days of their early relationship. Betty prepares his manuscript to go to publishers around town.
The couple is contrasted against Betty's friend and her new boyfriend who they live with. What may seem simple and passionate on its own, seems a little less stable compared to another budding relationship. As the rejections from publishers grow, Betty's mood darkens. Zorg's realization that he may not become a writer mirrors her growing frustration. Here we see the first of her dangerous emotional outbursts - she assaults a customer at the pizzeria that she and Zorg work at. This aggression is calmed after the death of their friend's mother when they move to run a piano store.
This transition to business couple seems the next step in Zorg's life and in their relationship. We enter the last third of the film with Betty's pregnancy. Her pregnancy gives the movie its French title (also that of the novel) - 37.2 degrees Celsius In The Morning. It's a unique title that describes the ideal body temperature of a pregnant female. The plot development may seem to come out of nowhere but it makes sense when viewed as part of Zorg's transistion. He's come out of adolescence and tried to become a writer. When that failed, he moved on to owning a business and having a steady income. His next step is to start a family.
It's this development that leads into the murky last 30 minutes of the film. There are plenty of issues that seemed easily overlooked when I was the Zorg of adolescence and harder to not see when you're on the other side of the film. There's a fun spirit in Betty's simple zest for life. But the onset of her depression is not explained. We are left to wonder what possible ailment is causing her to act out so violently. And as the questions regarding the pregnancy grow so does her level of violence. Is it her obsession with Zorg? Her need to pull him into adulthood and the frustration with the roadblocks that we all encounter on that trip? Or is there a more disappointing characterization of the free-spirited female as ultimately the "crazy" female. That explanation seems dated and I don't like to accept it but it is not explained away.
The film does not end on a happy note. The intenseness of their relationship is too much for either to handle. Zorg finally finds his success but at what cost to his muse, Betty. The final shots are a nice bookend to the beginning of the film. The story starts with such passion and fire and it ends with such internal, calm thought.
It's hard to criticize the film without mentioning that there is a "Director's Cut" that is an hour longer. It is not included as part of this Blu-ray release. The only extra here is an interview with the director - "Passion, Life, Cinema" that feels more like a career summary than specific to the enjoyment of this film. A longer film would make the transitions more palatable. Each section feels a little cheated. I wanted a little more of their early days to establish the passion for each other. I wanted more of that mature celebration of life they feel in the city as their relationship matures. And I would love to have more explanation of Betty's depression and how it manifests itself between them.
There's a scene late in the movie that illustrates where the viewer needs to have had more surrounding information to really appreciate what is happening. They have moved into a new place - the house of the dead mother of their friend. And Betty has convinced Zorg to knock down some walls in the house to open it up. This is about as obviously symbolic as the movie gets. Zorg is on one side of the wall - smashing it with a sledgehammer - and Betty is on the other in full laughing giggle. That is contrasted later with the half-destroyed wall still there and the two of them in separate rooms not talking to each other. I felt like we hadn't been prepared for such ups and downs yet - there hadn't been enough hints before we had such a wall between them.
There's a celebration of color and life in the film. The Gabriel Yard score is wonderful. There's the haunting sax that represents the passionate romance between the two that's featured in the beach house portion of the story and recollected in more romantic scenes later. There's the equally powerful piano theme that's later played by Zorg and accompanied on piano by Betty with her playing one note. It's a perfect representation of their relationship - the way she simply completes him.
The use of color is not nearly as inventive as Kieslowski would be in the Three Colours Trilogy. But it's interesting to compare against the other "blue" movie of the same year, Blue Velvet. The bright palette is similar to what David Lynch would use in that film and in Twin Peaks to over-stylize reality. It's mesmerizing here and for that alone I could recommend the film. The camerawork is refreshing and simple. Compared to recent movies I've reviewed like Sweetie from the same era - other films of the day fell in love with the handheld camera. This film is more often than not stationary and lets the viewer take in the scenery with long, slowly tracked shots.
Looking at this film with older eyes - I don't see that same romantic love that I saw when I was younger. I see the story of a man's journey into adulthood in his late 20s. I'm not fooled by the beautiful muse - her rebellion isn't an attractive woman fighting against authority image - now it's a scary reaction to life's frustrations. But that doesn't make the film any less enjoyable. It's offbeat, dark and 25 years later it still has me thinking.