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).
In the last 20 minutes, the story starts down an unusual road that will throw many viewers, and they aren't likely to be comforted by the low-key ending that follows, but those who give themselves over will likely find a strange sense of comfort watching Betty Blue unfold. It's an unconventional but oddly captivating film, with a genuinely unique atmosphere that is at once surreal, but also calming and natural. Lots of films claim to follow a couple's relationship through trials and tribulations, but the peaks and valleys of a film like Betty Blue are wonderful in their strange and unpredictable nature, creating a sensation that is as exhilarating as the real thing.
The Video and Audio
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 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.