The 13th Annual Robert Classic French Film Festival celebrates St. Louis’ Gallic heritage and France’s cinematic legacy. Prior to the August 22 festival screening of Jean-Jacque Beineix’s Betty Blue (1986), Andrew Wyatt – managing editor and lead critic for CSL’s blog The Lens – provided an introduction to the film. A written version of this introduction is presented below.
Betty Blue: Apart from Her, There’s Nothing
By Andrew Wyatt
1986 / France / 185 min. / Dir. by Jean-Jacques Beineix / Opened in U.S. theaters on Nov. 7, 1986
“I had known Betty for a week. We made love every night. The forecast was for storms.” Such are the opening words of Betty Blue, French writer-director Jean-Jacques Beinex’s sprawling 1986 romance. The neat, evocative poetry of those three sentences carries the resonance of a great novel’s first lines. Yet they are not the opening words of author Philippe Dijan’s original 1985 book, 37.2° le matin. The English translation of Dijan’s breakout literary hit begins with a dry, almost McCarthy-esque observation, “They were predicting storms for the end of the day, but the sky stayed blue and the wind died down.” Beinex’s screenplay makes several substantial changes to Dijan’s story, but this small, inaugural deviation from the novel’s text strangely feels like the filmmaker’s most momentous revision. Paired with the feature’s startling opening shot – a graphic love scene captured in one long, slow zoom – these words almost act as a statement of intent for Beinex’s erotic opus. Here is a tale of lightning strikes and rain-lashed passion; a tale of swells and lulls in a tempest’s fury; a tale destined to end in spectacular ruin, with the survivors blinking numbly into the parting clouds.
Crucially, we do not witness how this story’s star-crossed lovers first meet. For easygoing 30-year-old handyman Zorg (Jena-Hugues Anglade), the life that preceded the arrival of Betty (Béatrice Dalle) is not worth remembering. Meanwhile, Betty herself only exists in relation to Zorg. She enters the world 19 years old, fresh-faced and effortlessly charming, bubbling over with both childish impulsiveness and seasoned lust. She is a male fantasy, although not necessarily an idealized one. From the moment she steps across the threshold of Zorg’s beach bungalow, she becomes his world, his ride-or-die Pole Star. His devotion to this singular woman will propel him from a sun-soaked resort to a bustling city to a sleepy provincial town. It will incite him to violent outbursts, sweet-hearted generosity, and absurd criminal misadventure. It will inspire him to resurrect the creative dreams he shamefacedly secreted away in a dusty cardboard box.
To experience Betty Blue is to embark on a voyage much like Zorg’s: enthralling, unpredictable, studded with swooning highs and catastrophic lows. There is no Hero’s Journey in this tale, no tidy three-act structure, no secret key that will decode the story’s unruly, often absurd digressions. The love between Betty and Zorg is not a storybook romance, but neither is it a Hollywood or Paris romance. Beinex’s adaptation mimics the loose, episodic structure and seriocomic tone of a picaresque novel. He does not dictate his tale’s meaning from the outside, but instead allows it to emerge from the kaleidoscopic whirl of the central romantic relationship. It arises from the accumulation of fragments both big and small: the sex, the work, the fights, the meals, the birthdays and funerals, the late nights and huffy silences, the gentle kisses and cruel losses. What unfolds in Betty Blue doesn’t resemble a neatly arranged story, but rather a jaggedly eventful life.
Ironically, critics of director Beinex and the broader cinéma du look movement that he exemplifies often accuse him of a slick superficiality, a fascination with style over substance. This is presumably in contrast with the philosophical depth and sharp-elbowed politics of the French New Wave. Undoubtably, Betty Blue’s vivid, Kodachrome-inspired palette and keen eye for prosaic, consumer-culture details signify Beinex’s earlier experiences in television and advertising. Many artists, critics, and academics of the French cinema would regard such media with a disdainful sniff, particularly in the 1980s, when crass commercialism and glossy vacuousness were seen as ascendant. Yet advertising is nothing if not the science of desire, and Betty Blue evinces a filmmaker with a profound understanding of desire: The mysteries of its creation and sustenance, as well as the irrational choices it can induce us to make. Here is the story of a man who, perhaps unwisely, makes a brand his whole identity – and that brand is “Betty.”
Ah, and there’s the rub: To appreciate Beinex’s film, one must reckon with its problematic depiction of Betty, who is portrayed almost entirely through the eyes of the man that she adores and inspires. She is the sex object, the creative muse, the devoted advocate, the domestic partner. In short, she exists only to fulfill Zorg, to catalyze the changes that will dislodge him from his passive, creatively anemic state. What she needs remains an enigma. Indeed, despite Zorg’s unequivocal (one might say pathological) efforts to secure his lover’s happiness, such contentment remains elusive. The film’s depiction of Betty’s gradual mental deterioration further obscures a clear view of her hopes and desires. Still, one can read between the lines of Beinex’s film and discern something of Betty’s inner life. Béatrice Dalle’s potent, sophisticated performance scratches away at the candy-colored veneer that so enamors Zorg, providing a glimpse of the roiling anguish beneath. On the one hand, Betty longs to fulfill the handful of narrow roles that society permits her – virgin, whore, wife, mother. Yet she also viciously lashes out at their suffocating constraints, at the necessity of crushing her fierce, contradictory identity into a shape more palatable to men, even a man she loves.
To love Betty Blue – to truly love it – demands sensitivity, indulgence, and the kind of unflagging “us-against-the-world” devotion that Zorg exhibits. We must be willing to cast a critical eye on the film’s treatment of women and its dubious depiction of mental illness. We must luxuriate in its ravenous sensuality, its postcard-perfect loveliness, and its zest for libertine celebration. We must acknowledge the pleasures of a postcoital cigarette, a shot of tequila and soda, and a chili dinner eaten right from the bubbling pot. We must sympathize with the urge to run screaming into the night when life becomes too much to bear. We must even understand why love might compel someone to do the unthinkable, to destroy what they love in order to save it.