Let’s Go Crazy with Betty Blue (1986)

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To view Betty Blue click here.

We might have a few NSFW films lurking around here at FilmStruck (1974′s Sweet Movie springs to mind right off the bat), but for my money, nothing you could watch here at this moment combines the beautiful and the shocking in quite the same way as Betty Blue (1986). An intense and visually striking saga of amour fou, this was the third film by the remarkably unprolific Jean-Jacques Beineix, still most famous on these shores for one of the biggest crossover art house French films ever, Diva (1981). Since then he’s been a cinematic mad scientist of sorts (with only six narrative features to his credit so far), and this would be the only film of his to get American distribution of any kind in theaters.

That’s more of a sad reflection on us than him, and it’s a little mind-boggling to consider that 20th Century Fox of all folks originally released this in America where it became a big hit on VHS. Interestingly, the film’s current title is different from the one in France where it was originally called 37°2 le matin or “37 Degrees in the Morning.” (That’s Celsius, of course.) The heavy doses of sex and casual nudity certainly didn’t hurt (as someone who worked in a video store in high school, I can attest that almost every videotape was worn out to the point of total destruction during that opening six-minute scene alone), but there’s a lot more going on here than titillation. Leading actors Jean-Hugues Anglade and Béatrice Dalle create some kind of crazed alchemy here as Zorg and Betty, whose life in a beach-side town takes some harrowing turns when he decides to become a writer and break out of his job as a handyman. Betty’s not the most emotionally stable person in the world, and over the course of their relationship as she encourages him to make his dreams come true, things get… dark.

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Critics like Janet Maslin and Roger Ebert really came down hard on this film when it opened, with the latter dismissively claiming that this “is a movie about Beatrice Dalle’s boobs and behind, and everything else is just what happens in between the scenes where she displays them.” Well, no. Not at all. It’s basically a horror film on an emotional level, the kind of experience in which you realize you’ve become entangled in a situation that can’t possibly end well and starts spiraling into a kind of waking nightmare. There’s a lot of bare skin, of course (way more than North American viewers expected to see projected in 35mm in general theaters), but here it serves to emphasize the realism of the couple’s behavior – they’ve only been together a week when the story starts, after all – and the vulnerability of their situation as Betty’s psyche unravels. It’s not a film for everyone, to put it mildly, but there’s a kind of doomed, swooning, very non-Hollywood romanticism at work here that pulls you in if you don’t fight it.

Note also that we have two different versions of the film available here, the original theatrical cut (115 mins.) and the much, much longer director’s cut (185 mins., available here). For some reason many ambitious French films were heavily trimmed by their distributors before making it to the screen, ranging from Luc Besson’s The Big Blue (1988), which exists in three wildly different versions, to Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot (1994), which was slimmed down quite a bit in many territories outside its native country. It wasn’t even the first time this happened to Beineix; three years earlier his visually dazzling and critically mauled The Moon in the Gutter (1983) was released in a 137-minute version that was a far cry from the original four-hour epic he had intended (and which is now, sadly, apparently lost). The extra material in Betty Blue doesn’t drastically alter the story of the film so much as deepen the relationship between the characters, making the descent into delirium in the final stretch a bit easier to swallow and more logical. Whether that’s a good thing is up for debate; I’d recommend you start with the director’s cut and maybe watch the theatrical one second as an exercise in seeing how a film’s narrative drive can shift with a number of edits here and there. The extra length also gives the film a more generous running time to cast its spell, with cinematographer Jean-François Robin (in the first of three Beineix collaborations) conjuring up some eye-popping shades of red and blue that reflect the differing temperaments of our two lovers. It’s worth noting that Robin made this hot on the heels of two other visually audacious films, Jacques Demy’s underrated Parking and Andrzej Zulawski’s kinetic L’amour braque, both 1985; it’s a wonder after this trilogy that he had the strength to ever sit behind a camera again!

BettyBlue_1986_Beatrice Dalle (Betty) arrives at beach house

If you really want to blow your mind, consider that this was the very first film Dalle ever made. Arguably the most notorious wild child in French cinema, she’s gone on to a busy and very respectable career over the years with roles for such directors as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Abel Ferrara, Diane Kurys and Marco Bellocchio. That’s despite the fact that she became a tabloid fixture for several years in the wake of this film due to such antics as assaulting a meter maid, getting busted for cocaine possession on multiple occasions (which kept her from working in the U.S.), and marrying a convicted rapist while he was serving time in prison. She’s also become famous in international horror circles for a pair of roles for filmmaking team Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury with Inside (2007) and Livide (2011), the former a key entry in the French new horror movement of the past decade. That film proved Dalle still has the gift of channeling live-wire madness in front of the camera, and while some may take issue with the life decisions that have given her that ability over the years, there’s little doubt that it has resulted in a screen presence unlike any other in film history.

Nathaniel Thompson

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2 Responses Let’s Go Crazy with Betty Blue (1986)
Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : July 26, 2017 7:17 am

I still haven’t seen this film,but it sounds like it’s right up my alley. I’m reminded that Roger Ebert didn’t have much use for the color blue in 1986. He didn’t have anything good to say about Blue Velvet either, which is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Posted By George : July 28, 2017 4:22 pm

To quote Leonard Maltin: “If you’re watching this for sex, don’t miss the first five minutes.”

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