Betty Blue

(37° 2 le matin, Jean-Jacques Beineix, France, 1986)


In the mid '90s an article in Film Comment leapt to the defence of the VLF – the Very Long Film.

I am very partial to VLFs myself since, in the best cases (like Jacques Rivette's La Belle noiseuse [1991]), they allow a luxurious rhythm and give a special depth and gravity to the psychological journeys of the characters.

The director's cut (or version intégrale) of Betty Blue is short for a VLF – a mere 186 minutes. Naturally, I respect the wish of writer-director Jean-Jacques Beineix to restore an extra hour of material to a movie that indeed seemed occasionally abrupt and elliptical in its initially released form.

But is Betty Blue really any better now? And does it warrant this inflation into a VLF?

Beineix (Diva [1981]) is often unfairly pegged as a director of glossy, superficial, MTV-style movies. Betty Blue is a relatively restrained piece of work. Eschewing frills and pyrotechnics, it concentrates on the successive stages of the relationship between Betty (Béatrice Dalle) and Zorg (Jean-Hughes Anglade).

It is easy to over-emphasise the steamy, amour fou aspects of this story (and that opening sex scene is still a stunner). But Beineix is as interested in the mundane, difficult, dependent aspects of love – and also in the whole social world of co-workers, friends and on-lookers who surround the couple and, in a sense, seal their fate.

Unfortunately, many of the incidents detailing this world (especially some of the new ones) are simply meandering and banal.

The central problem with the short version of this film was the disconcerting speed with which Betty lost her mind – and the lack of any persuasive, compelling motivation for her to do so. Many unkind viewers chalked this down at the time to Beineix's latent misogyny, or his essential indifference towards the woman's viewpoint in this story – an indifference which slowly hollows out the film, despite the raw, remarkable performance from Dalle.

Betty Blue is not a simple, Playboy-style exercise in male voyeurism. The camera lingers on Anglade's impressive, nude physique certainly as much as it gazes at Dalle's. And this long version softens and complicates the depiction of Zorg's maleness.

But it does nothing more to fill in the enigma of Betty's moods and actions. And it is still, somewhat depressingly and disconcertingly, the tale of a man who discovers his artistry while his partner loses herself to madness and desperation.

There are very few good movies about the vocation of art – mainly because most of them ask us to take the genius of their central characters on trust. This is certainly the case with Betty Blue's depiction of Zorg's novelistic brilliance. All we have to judge his skill by is snippets of voice-over narration, including this charming gem: "When I thought of Betty's IUD, I pictured a door banging in the wind."

© Adrian Martin May 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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