Sony // 1986 // 185 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 17th, 2005
"How can I love you if I can't admire you? We're only learning how to die here." -- Betty
Writer-director Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue (37°2 le matin) traces the rocky relationship of Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade, Killing Zoe) and his mercurial girlfriend of a week, Betty (Béatrice Dalle, Time of the Wolf). As the picture opens, Zorg is working as a handyman keeping up some 500 beachfront bungalows, until Betty, enraged at Zorg's sleazy and porcine boss, throws a gallon of pink paint on his car and sets fire to one of the bungalows.
Betty, meanwhile, has discovered Zorg's unpublished novel, deepening her attraction to him. The two set off to Paris, alighting at the former Hotel de la Marne, now the home of Betty's best friend, Lisa. Betty feverishly types up Zorg's handwritten manuscript, and sends it off to various publishers. While the couple waits for Zorg's spectacular literary career to begin, they work at Lisa's boyfriend Eddy's restaurant, Pizza Stromboli -- at least until Betty flies into a rage, stabs a bitchy customer with a fork, and has to be slapped back to reality by Zorg.
When Betty's nearly jailed after attacking a publisher who viciously rejects Zorg's novel (are you sensing a pattern here?), Eddy packs the couple off to the countryside to manage his mother's piano store after her sudden death. The fresh air does Betty little good, her behavior becoming increasingly erratic, violent, and self-destructive. When Zorg has a hard time making the piano store profitable, he dresses up in drag and robs an armored car. Meanwhile, a false pregnancy drives Betty into a mental institution and toward a tragic end just as Zorg's literary career is finally blossoming.
Beineix's script is based on Philippe Djian's novel, and it has a sprawling, episodic, literary feel (particularly in this three-hour cut of the film). Djian was heavily influenced by Jack Kerouac, and so Betty Blue is a sort of road picture, the title character's eccentricities driving her and Zorg across France seeking happiness and stability, though Zorg soon recognizes Betty will never be at peace standing still. The story is organized into three seemingly random acts, Betty's escalating hysteria providing the only clear through-line. One might, however, view each of the acts as representing a stage of romantic relationships, compressed and heightened for maximum dramatic effect. The initial section at the bungalows is the giddy, endorphin rush of the early-stage sexual crush; the scenes at and around the Hotel de la Marne have all the flavor of the young committed relationship; and the piano store section is all comfortable domesticity, at least until Betty's demons get the better of her.
Viewed as a Kunstlerroman -- which the script seems to encourage -- Betty Blue is a shallow affair. Betty is the feral muse, all impulse and appetite, pushing Zorg to live with gusto. Once he learns the lesson and becomes the artist he's meant to be, she conveniently exits his life, allowing him to move forward as a writer, heartbroken but better for it. Reading the film this way reduces Betty to a voluptuous non-character, a male fantasy. She's borderline ridiculous, anyway, with her wild mood swings, narcissistic musings, and insatiable sex drive. Reductive interpretations do her no good. The film's odd mix of comedy and tragedy begs us to view the characters as round and complex, but the absurdity throughout makes it difficult to do so. Betty, in particular, is a cartoon. Béatrice Dalle, in her screen debut, gives a fine performance, though we never lose sight of the fact it's a performance. There's great emotional range to the role, but the actress had no chance of rising above the character's fundamental shallowness. This may be a result of a poor book-to-screen translation. Betty seems less Betty as she truly is, than Betty as Zorg sees her -- implacable yet irresistibly sexy. But Beineix's camera is decidedly objective, giving us no sense that this is the story from Zorg's point of view. By way of contrast, consider Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie. It mixes comedy, tragedy, and the absurd to much better effect precisely because of its subjectivity -- its oddball world is a mix of reality and its heroine's fertile imagination. Had Beineix taken the same approach, Betty would be a more believable, emotionally resonant character because we wouldn't accept everything we see at face value. Zorg, too, would be more believable as the sort of uniquely imaginative person who might be a great writer. As it is, by the end of the film, he still comes off as a slacker, though a slacker who happens to have written a novel that was accepted for publication. But lots of bad novels are published and Zorg's may just be one of them.
Still, it's easy to see why Betty Blue made such waves in the pre-Amélie American home video market of the 1980s. Besides the ample nudity and sex (which many were convinced was not simulated), the picture was a breath of fresh air with a rambling plot that wouldn't pass muster in Hollywood, and out-of-left-field vignettes like a garbage man who despises discarded mattresses after having lost his hand to one, a duo of bumbling, battling cops, and a porn-addicted security guard turned on when restrained with duct tape during Zorg's heist. It must have all seemed weird, vibrant, and unpredictable in 1986, a Wizard of Oz for adults. Previous home video releases of Betty Blue presented the streamlined two-hour cut of the film, but this DVD offers Beineix's full 185-minute cut, which essentially adds quirkiness and provides a slightly more coherent story flow. The picture is presented at its 1.66:1 theatrical ratio, and the transfer is enhanced for 16x9 displays. The image is beautiful, easily the best the movie has looked on the small screen. Colors are vibrant, flesh tones natural, and blacks deep and solid. The original French stereo mix is offered as the default audio, along with a variety of subtitle options. There's also an English dub, which is crystal clear but hampered by ambient space that sounds phony.
There are no extras, unless you consider previews for other discs an extra.
All in all, time has not been kind to Betty Blue. Its wild blend of contradictory tones keeps the viewer at an emotional distance instead of creating a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy that mirrors life itself. Jean-Jacques Beineix's experiment was bold, but it's been executed with far better results by other filmmakers in the nearly two decades since.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 185 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Unrated