Catherine at Thoughts All Sorts is hosting The Colours Blogathon, and my contribution to this amazing and colourful parade of entries is a French cult classic film from the year 1983 called “37°2 Le Matin” or simply “Betty Blue“. Nominated in 1986 for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category, this film of a passionate, but doomed love affair is now almost iconic. It exquisitely, stylishly and powerfully narrates and presents the love story of Zorg and Betty, initially written by Philippe Djian, the author behind “Elle” (2016). Faithful to the book, this movie is like its main heroine, Betty: undeniably beautiful, unashamedly erotic and sensual, and also a bit crazy and self-indulgent, capable of finding beauty in tragedy and charmingly rendering it through a cinematic prism. In “Betty Blue”, what you may find is both an artfully erotic cinematic take on a moving love story, and an uncomfortable film filled with both familiar and unfamiliar character studies. Add to this a beautiful soundtrack by Gabriel Yared and a delightfully colourful cinematography, and you have a truly memorable film about passionate love gone awry.
Betty Blue (1986)
“Life was putting me to sleep, but for her it was the opposite. A marriage of water and fire – the perfect combination to make everything go up in smoke” (Zorg in “Betty Blue”).
“Only real Love and real Hate can make you do great things” (Zorg in “Betty Blue”).
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, the theatrical version of “Betty Blue” starts with our narrator making love to Betty, a girl he met a week ago. The narrator is Zorg, a thirty year old guy, who is living in one of the beach bungalows, while having a day job of handling the repairs of another 100+ beach huts. It seems that his life followed a familiar course until he met Betty. This girl turned out to be charming, beautiful and sexually-liberated, but also too high-spirited and volatile (a femme fatale), who always seems to reach for some unattainable dream or idea somewhere beyond everyday existence. As Zorg later says about her: “what she wanted was to leave a pile of ashes behind her and hit the road like in the old good days“. Despite Betty’s later irrationality, she is rational enough to realise that she and Zorg are going in circles. For her, Zorg’s plumbing jobs is like rolling a Sisyphus rock with no point in it – her worse fear being meaninglessness. She is not satisfied just to exist like Zorg, she…they…should shine. In that way, Betty is completely opposite of Zorg, who is a down-to-earth/laid-back guy, content with his humble living and working arrangements, and with the idea of living a simple life, enjoying simple pleasures. Zorg and Betty’s attraction is powerful and soon intense love blossoms. For example, describing the extent of his infatuation with Betty, Zorg says in the book: “I thought about all the hours we had ahead of us – it was like swallowing opium”.
This film’s beginning is probably its best part, when the film shows the tranquil states of Zorg and Betty’s souls “before the storm”. The setting here: the sun, the sea, the beach, the huts, all of the colours, and the vivid personality of Betty amidst all that, is captivating, even though there are slight exaggerations in the film in comparison to the book (for example, in the book, there are only 27 huts for the pair to paint and not 500+ or so as the film implies). However, soon an unrealistic and oppressing painting job sends Zorg and Betty packing their bags for bright lights of a city. Their life in a city begins like a trial. The pair stays with Lisa, Betty’s girlfriend and Eddie, Lisa’s boyfriend. When they were living in a beach hut, Betty found Zorg’s written manuscripts, and is determined now to make a great writer out of Zorg by typing up his handwritten books and sending them to a publisher. The duo also starts to juggle their waiting jobs at Eddie’s pizzeria with their turbulent love affair, and soon again hit the road for Eddie mother’s funeral, finally ending up by taking over his mother’s store selling pianos. In this part of the film, the film does not really know what to do with itself, and it even becomes a bit dull to see some scenes. Understandably, the slow pace here only reflects the uneventful plot line of the book, but whether the director wanted to reinforce the image of the pair leading their hedonistic lifestyle, or drive home some Kerouac-like or existentialist theme, the audience just have too much of that reinforcement here.
The final part of this film is about Betty’s escalating irrational behaviour. She has been quite a character throughout the film, mediating between childishness/optimism, and apathy/desperation. It becomes heart-breaking to see her crumble away. And, even more so for Zorg, who got used to a bit bipolar Betty with her mood swings, but also the one who shows a passion for living. It is devastating to find oneself at the top, when it no longer matters to you. The film’s ending is not original, but neither is it without an impact.
How similar is the film to the book? It is a faithful adaptation, even though, at least in the theatrical version, any crimes committed by Zorg or Betty’s jail time are left out. Perhaps, these things were important to show Zorg’s devotion to Betty and his intense love for her. In the novel, Zorg is re-discovering life and himself through Betty, though those meditative parts are not very clear in the film. In the book, Zorg says: “Courage had nothing to do with it…[w]atching Betty sink deeper every day would make knocking over a bank – or blowing up half the world – seems like [a] child’s play”. Zorg’s masquerading as a woman had little to do with him gaining money, he was more concerned to ensure that Betty had a laugh. Zorg’s poetic metaphors and wit is all over the book: he “tries to heal third degree burns with the glass water“, and also says: “it wasn’t that I reduced the whole world down to Betty – it was that I just didn’t care about the rest. She smiled, and my anger disappeared like a wet footprint in the burning sun.“
“Betty Blue” is notoriously to be found on Roger Ebert’s “Most Hated Films” list, but this in no way means that the film is actually bad. “Betty Blue” would either be totally loved or probably hated, and hated only because it has the danger to be very misunderstood. The film is shot in a European/French style, not that dissimilar in feel to what will become known later as the New French Extremity cinematic movement. In fact, it was Béatrice Dalle herself who was later cast in such a well-known New French Extremity film as “Trouble Every Day” (2001). “Betty Blue” is unflinching in its portrayal of sex and nudity, highlighting in that way the rawness and the liberating nature of Zorg and Betty’s relationship. Perhaps, some of the nudity in the film was completely needless (in fact, there is too much of it, especially in the director’s cut), but since the film is a quintessentially French affair gone mad, all the nakedness in the film only makes for an original viewing experience, reflects the graphic nature of the novel, and, may also pay an indirect tribute to the sexual liberation of the 1960s. Also, to emphasise the film’s so-called “French-ness”, the film even ridicules the police.
Béatrice Dalle is perfectly cast as Betty, embodying her through and through. This was Dalle’s first ever role in a film, and she gives a great performance. Dalle did not have to go too far or stretch her own personality to portray Betty, because Dalle herself has always been known as a very vivacious woman, who not always had a very harmonious relationship with the law. Jean-Hugues Anglade (“La Reine Margot” (1994)) is also good as Zorg. A bit languid, but self-assured, Anglade fits perfectly into this romantic image of a failed writer-genius who has to make ends meet by doing lowly repairing jobs, despite his apparent talent. The simplicity/inherent fatalism of Zorg’s way of thinking is emphasised in the book by him saying: “Life doesn’t have much to offer outside of a few things that aren’t for sale. I opened my beer and thought about Betty.”
The clever cinematography and the beautiful score are probably what make this film so exquisitely wonderful and tragic. “Betty Blue” is done in a French film movement style called “cinema du look“, prevalent in the 1980s. Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix are just a couple of directors who were experimenting/working with this theme. The movement stresses style over substance/narrative, and puts at the forefront any visual extravaganza. Young, generally misunderstood, personalities form part of such films. “Betty Blue” also has this content and feel, and unnatural aesthetics stand out in particular. Amids the playing of a saxophone or a piano (both of which are incorporated into the film’s narrative in some way), we are confronted with intense colours, especially that of red, blue and yellow. Red is often worn by Betty to either signal her hidden distress or just to show off her passionate, sensual and headstrong nature. Likewise, there are effective images of fire present in the film, in the background of cold blue colours. Equally, half way through the film, the colour yellow appears, such as the yellow car, to signal immediate danger or just the fact that the characters need to start to pay attention (because danger is near). This nice play of colours is not incidental and may even demonstrate the film’s attempt to hack into the audience’s subconscious, and invoke in their minds and hearts different imagery.
The music is composed by no other than Gabriel Yared, better known for his breathtaking compositions for “The English Patient” (1996) and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999). Yared’s “Betty et Zorg” and Des Orages Pour La Nuit‘” compositions are particularly evocative in the film, demonstrating the loveliness and beauty of Betty and Zorg’s relationship, its (sexually) liberating qualities, but also hinting at the melancholy, nostalgia and the world of mirages present in Zorg and Betty’s coupling.
“Betty Blue” is an excellent adaptation of Philippe Djian’s novel, even though the book still remains more compelling overall. In terms of its narrative, the film is brave, unrestrained and even poetic, even though it does drag quite a bit in the middle. In terms of the visual presentation, as every other film du look, it is a delight to watch, with bright colours, especially those of red, blue and yellow, evoking different sentiments. Moreover, with the bold and genuine performance by Dalle in the lead role, and with the melancholically beautiful musical score, the whole film can be seen as one very powerful love story, told through a medium which could only be defined as a piece of cinematic art. 9/10