As it is with most things, the best intentions are often foiled by the unpredictability of day-to-day life. I try to stay knowledgeable about all kinds of film, and I make an effort to watch interesting foreign movies, but my knowledge of international cinema, especially anything made before 1998, is pretty limited. I had heard of Betty Blue before today; the film won a Golden Space Needle in 1992 at the Seattle International Film Festival, and when it screens in the city, which is close to where I live, it usually gets a bit of attention. A good portion of the movie's reputation comes from the film's sexuality, but having seen it now, I was more struck by how free the movie feels, completely unrestrained by the needs of plot or story.
When boiled down to its basic elements, that story is as follows: Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) is a handyman in a small shanty town out in the middle of nowhere. Out of the blue, Zorg meets a beautiful young woman named Betty (Béatrice Dalle), and the two fall for each other, and Zorg starts to break out of his reclusive habits thanks to her. The difference between Betty Blue and a modern movie is that writer/director Jean-Jacques Beineix (working from a novel by Philippe Dijan) lets the characters drift around in almost a free-form pattern, passing through several side stories that would have been the central plot of the film if it were made today. These tangents start out simple. Zorg is assigned the impossible task of painting all the shanty house, and Betty is asked to help him. Betty discovers a novel Zorg has written and becomes determined to get it published. Betty and Zorg visit one of Betty's old friends (Consuelo De Haviland), who soon meets a man named Eddy (Gérard Darmon), and the foursome all move into one house. The twists become more unusual as the movie progresses, but it's funny how unsurprising, say, the cross-dressing bank robbery is, by the time the movie gets to it.
Through it all, we have Anglade and Dalle to focus on. At first, Betty seems remarkably sweet and charming, but it's clear right from the beginning that getting on her bad side is a big mistake. When Zorg tries to resist Betty's pleas to leave the shanty town and Zorg's awful boss behind, the fury of her reaction is off-putting. Dalle is careful during these scenes, which pop up from time to time, to portray the anger as neither righteous or indignant, which would probably turn the audience against her, but as an almost primal need to express her emotions physically. At first, the audience probably won't even notice the delicate tightrope the actress is walking, but when Betty's psychological issues start to rear their head as the movie continues, the performance takes on new dimensions.
The same is true of Anglade, who begins the film passive and quiet, trying to keep his head down and live his life without interruption. When Zorg meets Betty, you can see his focus shift from himself to her; he seems almost hypnotized by her very presence. Zorg has faint aspirations of being a writer, but his one novel is hidden away in boxes that he tries to stop Betty from even opening. Slowly but surely, Betty frees Zorg of his boxed-up life, and by the time the third act rolls around, he's a man of action, ready and willing to do anything that Betty could ever want. The transformation that Anglade makes is a subtle one, but you can almost see it more in the moments when he's alone, reflecting on all that has happened, than you can when he's with Betty. Unlike Dalle, Anglade also has several scenes with other people, like Eddy and a grocer named Bob (Jacques Mathou), and he's very good in these scenes too, especially his drunken escapades with Eddy.
The film is indeed very sexual, although it never feels particularly salacious (with the notable exception of the movie's hot and heavy opening scene). Most of the content is nudity, and most of the nudity is treated in a benign way, such as characters waking up in the morning or getting out of the shower. Betty Blue was made in 1986, and I can't imagine any of the content being particularly controversial today, just because the tone that Beineix sets is rarely sexualized. As a director, Beineix's compositions are appealing without seeming arty, and his pacing is especially good for such a long movie (Betty Blue runs 185 minutes).
Many viewers will have trouble with where the film ultimately ends up in the last 20 minutes (which is surprising but not unexpected), nor will they like the low-key ending that follows, but it's hard to deny the powerful sense of relaxation I got from watching Betty Blue unfold. I may not have been blown away by the film, but it was an engaging experience set apart from the kinds of movies that are made today. Lots of films claim to follow a couple's relationship through trials and tribulations, but the peaks and valleys of most American romance films can't hold a candle to the highs and lows of a movie like Betty Blue, which feels as expansive as the real world.
Cinema Libre's DVD comes in a fairly nice-looking package with the Cesar-winning poster artwork on the front cover, which remains mostly untainted by text, except for a credit to the director, the film's foreign title (37°2 le Matin), and a couple of tiny festival wreaths underneath the caption "Director's Cut". The image is framed in a black-and-golden-yellow border identifying the title as part of the Jean-Jacques Benieix Collection (which is comprised of Betty Blue, IP5, Locked in Syndrome, Moon in the Gutter, Mortal Transfer, and Roselyne and the Lions). The back cover is a little text-heavy, but not terrible, while the disc repeats the poster art. There is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Cinema Libre offers Betty Blue in what looks like a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. General detail is pretty good, although fine detail looks a little rough, and the dark scenes are swarming with compression artifacts (easily differentiated from the film grain, which is also present). Colors are also a bit green and blacks are often washed out, although when the characters are outside in the day at the beginning of the movie, most of the problems aren't too visible. It's in no way unwatchable, and who knows what shape the elements are in, since Betty Blue is 23 years old and lacks the benefits that preservation in a vault at a major studio might have offered. Regardless, my impression is that the movie ought to look at least a little better. I also spotted a weird ghostly silhouette of the characters in the scene where Betty tells Zorg she's pregnant, as if there was a piece of glass behind them.
French Dolby Digital 2.0 is not particularly impressive, but it's clean and clear. English subtitles are provided, which are on the small side. Personally, I like the fact that they don't take up the entire screen, but depending on how far the viewer sits from their television, they might be harder to see. They seem to be fairly good, but I heard and saw at least one or two translations (like the caption for the letter Betty gets from the doctor) that appeared to be noticeably simplified from the original French.
The only video extra is a pleasant interview (17:59), where Tim Rhys of Moviemaker Magazine interviews director Beineix. The two primary topics are the film's sexuality and the reaction to it, both by the actors and by the audience, but none of these questions seem to dig all that deep, and Beineix's stories are interesting, but not relevatory.
The other extra (unadvertised on the DVD packaging) is a feature-length audio commentary by Beineix -- since the movie is three hours long, this seems like a silly extra to overlook. Like the film, Beineix is pretty laid-back, which will likely cause many viewers to lose interest in the track long before it's over, but the director doesn't leave too many gaps of space and talks fondly about Anglade and Dalle, assessing his style, and pointing out the changes in French culture and historical information about his surroundings when he made it.
The disc opens with an extended trailer for other movies in the Jean-Jacques Beineix Collection, which is presented in French with no subtitles. No theatrical trailer for Betty Blue is included.
Betty Blue is a warm embrace of a movie, with likable characters but little that will really get viewers' blood pumping with excitement. I wouldn't suggest the film to a viewer without knowing their tastes in advance, but fans familiar with the director or the film, or just familiar with film in general, should enjoy leaning back and taking in the experience of this French cult classic with this recommended release.
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