Cinema Libre // 1986 // 185 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // December 23rd, 2009
Not even a masterpiece gets read until it's typed.
Revisiting Betty Blue after a number of years, I wondered if I would feel about it today as I do about Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a novel that heavily influenced Philippe Dijan in writing the novel that became Jean-Jacques Beineix's film. In my early years of college, I held both Betty Blue and On the Road in very high regard. Over the years, however, I've grown more distant from Kerouac's novel. My opinion about its quality has not changed, but I find myself less like Sal Paradise and I have a hard time caring too much anymore. While it is similar in many ways, it turns out that Betty Blue holds more appeal for me today than fifteen years ago. What that says about me, I can't really tell, but the film is a whimsical, emotional, and completely enjoyable jaunt through France with a drunken writer and one of the sexiest muses to ever light up the screen.
Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade, Taking Lives), a sometimes writer working as a painter, only met Betty Blue (Béatrice Dalle, Á la folie) a week ago, but things got hot fast. She's beautiful, insatiable, and Zorg can't stay away. Soon, Betty moves in with him and he falls in love, but he discovers that she is a bit of a nut. During one of her many rampages, while throwing all of Zorg's stuff out the window, she comes upon a manuscript that Zorg wrote but never tried to sell. She reads it, falls in love with his talent, and begins a desperate quest to get it published. Despite her good intentions, Betty's violent impulsiveness guides them into trouble from which they must constantly escape. While living a transient existence is sometimes maddening for him, this is the best time of Zorg's life.
Betty Blue is alive with a rare spirit that sweeps me off my feet like almost no other movie can. A summer romance combined with a road picture, the film is earnestly emotional, but remains a light and unpretentious study in L'Amour fou, the mad passion that has driven many to destruction. Betty Blue, however, regards such passion positively; it is this exact fire that keeps Zorg and Betty together and, therefore, restarts Zorg's life as a writer, which is ultimately the heart of the story.
Some have argued (including our own esteemed Judge Dan Mancini) that Betty isn't much of a character. I can't exactly disagree with that statement, but I would argue that she wasn't meant to be. Betty is the embodiment of passion, an apparition meant to deliver Zorg from his ennui more than she is a real human character. She has no background, no indication of a past at all; she barely interacts with anybody not named Zorg, and it's rarely pretty when she does. Her immaturity and moodiness is natural, a passion such that she represents cannot be contained. As a character, she must move forward decisively, whether that involves burning down a house or cutting the face of a book publisher; and she instills this passion into Zorg, albeit to a much less extreme degree. The one thing you can't call Betty Blue is Zorg's muse. Zorg doesn't write a word while Betty is in his life. Had she not found the manuscript, Zorg never would have mentioned it. Only when she conveniently, though tragically, exits his life can he actually start to write again. That doesn't make Betty any stronger a character, but she serves a more important purpose to the film than just a pretty girl for Zorg to hang out with.
The lack of depth in Betty's character is found throughout the film, shown in both the story and the supporting characters. All of it is a framework for Zorg and Betty to interact with. There is very little dramatic thrust to be found; when something actually does happen, it comes in the form of fork stabbings, or other such extremities, that force the story into a new location, but don't actually change the characters in any way. On the whole, fond as I am of the film, Betty Blue is a little bit shallow and too self-centered to have very much constructive to say about love or writing. It is strictly a male writer fantasy, and if you are able to relate to the main character, the film is easy to fall in love with. After all, aren't summer romances supposed to be a little bit shallow, anyway? It doesn't mean they don't feel good.
Cinema Libre has released Betty Blue as part of its Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection. Sony released the uncut version of the film in 2005, and this new version is a very slight upgrade over it. The widescreen image is a little brighter than its predecessor and, though the transfer is somewhat cleaner in this version, there is still plenty of grain and dust, especially in the brighter scenes. Overall, the beautiful cinematography gets a good treatment, but it could look better. The French stereo track is nearly identical to Sony's version but, unlike that, it is the only audio option available. That's fine, because the old English dub track was awful. All the subtitles from the old version are gone, as well, and we're left with only the English translation. On the other hand, extras! Though it's unadvertised on the case, Beineix provides an insightful commentary on his most famous film, and seems genuinely engaged throughout, though he declines to give a definitive answer on the reality of Anglade and Dalle's bedroom antics. An interview with the director amounts to a shorter version of the commentary, and there is a photo gallery that lets you see pictures of actors and locations. Underwhelming as the advertised extras are, the commentary is quite valuable and fans of the film can feel good about upgrading to this version.
At just over three hours, Betty Blue is a very long film and, because of its languid pace, can feel even longer. Released in the U.S. with an hour shorn, the film was very successful and even got nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1987. Unfortunately, that cut makes very little sense. As frankly as the sex is presented, these scenes were not cut to save puritan American eyes. Instead, anything resembling story or motivation was removed. The film is, of course, much better with that stuff reinserted, but the film's length and general lack of drama will feel like a slog to many viewers.
Like an old flame that never died, my feelings came back the instant I laid eyes on Betty Blue. All the reasons I thought I'd drifted from the film were forgotten, and I fell back into the warming embrace of its charms. Betty Blue is a film as vibrant and voluptuous as its title character, one that I am in love with more now than ever before.
Review content copyright © 2009 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Libre
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 185 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection