Review: Betty Blue (1986)

There's films about beautiful French people doing beautiful French things, then there's Betty Blue.

There’s films about beautiful French people doing beautiful French things, then there’s Betty Blue. Beatrice Dalle stars as Betty, the original crazy, passionate, impulsive, borderline-psychotic but ultimately irresistable woman in Zorg’s (Jean-Hugues Anglade) life. The opening line and scene sums up the film completely – as they are having passionate sex on a hot, sunny morning, Zorg’s voiceover says “I had known Betty for a week. We screwed every night. The forecast was for storms.”

Stormy doesn’t even begin to describe their relationship. Zorg was just a simple handyman, painting cabins at the beach, but when Betty discovers during an argument that he wrote a novel she becomes obsessed with his talent, leading her to more decisive action. At first, Betty seems impulsive, slightly violent, but not too dangerous. Sure, there’s signs that maybe she has deeper problems – she throws paint at Zorg’s boss’s car, sets fire to the cabin they lived in at the time – but nothing too bad. Having burned their bridges at the beach, they move to the city to live with a friend of Betty’s. Zorg works as a handyman, while Betty types up his novel in earnest. It all goes downhill from there.

So far so French, right? Watching this film, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it conforms to all the ridiculously French stereotypes – everyone’s a waiter, everybody’s drinking red wine and smoking cigarettes, accordion music everywhere, casual nudity, everyone is sweatily beautiful – but this film invented those stereotypes. It exploded all over the world, and laid down the archetype for the lustily Gallic psychological drama. It also made foreign cinema huge in America again, setting up the box office successes of Krzysztof Kieślowski‘s Three Colours Trilogy, among others.

Its influence is legendary, and its iconic cover art adorned many a dorm room in the late-eighties to early-nineties. Everybody’s heard of it, its had countless releases, so what’s so special about this one? Well, the difference is that Second Sight have assembled a two-disc special edition package including both versions of the film – the two hour theatrical release, and the three hour(!) director’s cut on one disc, and a lengthy documentary about the film and Beatrice Dalle’s initial test footage on the other. Dalle’s test reels are a sensation, given she was plucked from obscurity for this star-making role, and the documentary gives a great insight into the making of the film (as you’d expect) but also the personalities involved, and the effect that would have on the creation of Betty Blue.

For instance, there’s a surprising amount of absurdist humour in the movie. One moment that stands out is when Eddy finds out over the phone that his mother has died. He’s later preparing for the funeral, and when the scene opens we see Lisa, his girlfriend, tying his tie for him, revealing the naked woman printed on it as she does so. She says “You’re sure this is the only tie you’ve got?”, and everyone starts to laugh. Tinny music starts, and as the scene closes it becomes obvious that Eddy’s tie is making those sounds. Again, not a film you’d expect to be funny, but it really is, and that stems from the personalities of the team behind the film.

There’s another scene later on, when Zorg and Betty are staying over in Eddy’s dead mother’s house, when Betty decides she doesn’t want to sleep in a dead woman’s bed. The scene that follows, with Zorg trying to set up a makeshift bed in the next room, is just great. You could compare it to that scene in Annie Hall when Alvy and Annie are attempting to prepare lobsters in the kitchen, only completely nude as they do so. In fact, the Woody Allen comparison works for the film as a whole – the spunky characters and casual humour feel like characters he would write, and describing Betty Blue as a Woody Allen film with relaxed attitudes to sex and nudity, you wouldn’t go far wrong. Throw in a little old Hollywood, maybe some Tennessee Williams, and you’d be about right.

How to sum up? “Life affirming” might be going slightly too far, but it’s definitely “life enhancing”. You feel better for having watched the film, and it’s one that isn’t easily forgotten. The print looks stunning in Blu-ray, as you’d expect, and feels pretty timeless because of that. The themes it covers – obsession, love, passion, life and death – are ones that humans have wrestled with since the dawn of time, and it has a damn good go at confronting them in a funny, realistic way. Everybody feels real, and Betty’s descent into madness is worryingly realistic. Beatrice Dalle never topped her work here, even though she’s still chugging away, most recently in Livide, a French horror film. Nothing as great as this though, a bona-fide world cinema classic.

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