Betty Blue was the film to see in 1986 – the epitome of French cool, a Breathless for the new generation of earnestly intellectual cinema goers and unquestionably the film you needed to be able to discuss and debate over a coffee in an arthouse cinema bar with similarly clever people. Beatrice Dalle, meanwhile, became what used to be called ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’, the alluring yet unapproachable subject of many a non-objectifying nocturnal fantasy for politically correct males, and the poster became one the most iconic of the decade, being a mainstay on student bedroom walls – it’s inconceivable that anyone would ever issue this film without using that artwork.
Being an awkward bugger, and despite having a passion for what would eventually become known as ‘world cinema’ but was then just ‘foreign films’, I didn’t see the movie at the time, though I did read the original novel, which of course only the hippest of the hip did. I eventually caught up with the movie when the director’s cut was released in one of those large box collector’s VHS editions that were all the rage in the mid-Nineties, by which time the hipsters had long since moved on to gushing about Tarantino, who offered a much easier route to being cool. Betty Blue‘s mainstream reputation seemed to diminish quite quickly – when I mentioned to a 29 year old associate and film buff that I was heading home to watch the film, I was greeted with a blank look. He’d never heard of it.
Which is a pity, because beneath all the studied coolness of the original fans, this is an astonishing work of art, charting a doomed relationship with the same intensity – if not hysteria – as a film like Possession or Polanski’s Bitter Moon. The Director’s Cut (which is really the one to watch, though the shorter theatrical version is also included here) runs for over three hours, but at no point does it feel bloated or overdone. Instead, this longer version allows the relationship between the central characters to develop, let’s Betty’s growing madness seem more organic and allows the film to feature some oddball humour that borders on the surreal. In fact, it’s fair to say that Betty Blue – or 37°2 le matin to give it the original French title, the English language retitling another studied moment in making the film and Beatrice Dalle’s title character iconic – exists in a world that is not quite the one we live in, a world where Betty and lover Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) often seem the most normal amongst the eccentric singing traffic cops, horny security guards and lecherous landlords that they encounter. The humour that is more prevalent in this extended cut also acts as a counterweight to the emotional intensity and grand tragedy that is at the centre of the story.
The film’s story is, on the surface, pretty simple. Zorg, our narrator, and Betty meet, start screwing, fall in love and move in together. As the film starts, he’s the handyman at a seaside chalet camp, but his exploitative and lecherous boss soon winds the volatile Betty up, causing the first of many emotional and violent outbursts that involve her throwing all Zorg’s possessions out of his window and then setting his chalet on fire. But by this point, Zorg is in too deep to allow such questionable behaviour to put him off. The couple head out to Paris, where they movie into the run down hotel owned by Betty’s best friend, Zorg working as a handyman in lieu of rent. Betty, meanwhile, busies herself with typing up Zorg’s hand written novel that she has discovered and is convinced is a masterpiece. The novel and its rejection by publishers will become one of the things that increasingly convinces the free spirited girl that the world is a cruel and unfair place, as life slowly begins to beat her down. The couple eventually move on to manage a piano store, but their potential happiness is crushed when Betty’s expected pregnancy proves to be a false alarm and her rages turn increasingly inwards. As Zorg resorts to ever more desperate measures in order to make her happy, Betty closes in on herself and the film becomes increasingly dark.
When first released, Betty Blue was notorious for its explicit sexual content, and the film certainly opens with a pretty graphic sex scene – one of those ‘are they really doing it?’ types. By the standards of modern Euro arthouse cinema, where hardcore sex is not uncommon, it’s fairly tame, though at the time this and one or two other moments would’ve pushed the limits of BBFC acceptability, and only it’s arty credentials saved it – back then, Britain’s head censor could still claim that ‘serious’ films were less dangerous than ‘exploitation’ films showing similar scenes. It should be said though that while the film features extensive nudity – as much male as female – for the most part this is shown in a naturalistic, non-erotic manner. Dalle may have been the sex symbol for middle class males in the late 1980s, but there’s nothing salacious or exploitative about her frequent nudity.
Dalle, of course, dominates the film from the moment we first see her outside the opening sex scene. It’s pretty easy to see why Zorg would become so helplessly in love with her that he would forgive anything. Betty is sweet, impulsive and uninhibited, and Dalle makes this utterly appealing – a single smile can make all the madness seem as though it’s not a big deal. There’s an interesting comparison to make to Brigitte Bardot. Early scenes of Dalle, effortlessly sexy as she walks along in skimpy outfits driving older men to distraction, are reminiscent of And God Created Woman, where Bardot played a similar innocent. Betty is more knowing, perhaps, but no less naïve, and her child-like glee, impatience and even anger give her a real charm, even as they prove to be her undoing.
Given her dominance of the film, it would be easy for Anglade to be reduced to a mere supporting figure. This is, thankfully, far from the case. His character is more down to earth and worldly-wise than Betty, but he’s slowly freed by her, leaving aside his safe but boring life, finally beginning to believe that his novel might have value and becoming freer. He also seems to be infected with the madness that grips Betty – there’s no other reason to explain a cross-dressing heist, and by the end of the film, the once calm man is as ferocious as she was earlier.
Jean-Jacques Beineix, who had arguably kicked of this generation of French cinema chic with Diva a few years earlier, does a fine job telling this story, creating impressive visual tableaux and balancing the doomed romance, the tragedy and the humour expertly. He also manages to ensure that at no point do we start to see Betty in any way other than through the adoring eyes of Zorg, even when she is at her wildest and most psychotic. Most importantly, he achieves that rarest of feats – making a three hour movie fly by.
Betty Blue may no longer be the film of choice for image-conscious hipsters, but that doesn’t make it any less important a piece a cinema. This is, deservedly, one of the iconic films of an era and one of the best works of the 1980s.