This is the film to embrace or avoid (depending on your predilection) if you have ever loved someone madly. If you have ever loved with intensity and against common sense, you will understand this film perfectly. It is one of the greatest portrayals I have ever seen of that dilemma. It is a very moving representation of love against reason, and the hope that sheer will can overcome mental illness.
Zorg (Jean-Hughes Anglade) is a shy, happy-go-lucky handyman and aspiring writer already in the throws of passion with Betty (Béatrice Dalle), a beautiful, free-spirited and probably manic-depressive young woman. Betty has trouble with authority and tends to get violent when provoked. Zorg finds her manic behaviour and cavalier demeanour refreshing as a counterbalance to his own tendency to withdraw.
After Zorg’s boss makes too many unreasonable demands, Betty tosses everything out of their little chalet and torches it. Apparently arson doesn’t phase Zorg, so they set out in search of a better life. They take up a semi-nomadic existence together working in a restaurant for a time and then managing a piano shop. It turns out Zorg has written a hefty-sized book. Though Zorg is fairly apathetic about it, Betty believes passionately in Zorg’s talent and expends tremendous energy attempting to get the book published. Every publisher’s rejection contributes to the down-turn in Betty’s mood. The deeper Zorg falls in love with Betty, the more he dismisses her unstable behaviour. Essentially, Zorg seems to expand to absorb Betty’s extravagant character. Inevitably, Betty’s insanity is triggered so dramatically as to leave no doubt to its presence. When Zorg’s book finally achieves success, she is too damaged for the news to mean anything to her.
Sometimes life requires us to seek a complimentary opposite of ourselves, and not merely a reflection of our own temperament. The two leads have some of the greatest natural chemistry on film. This is made all the more remarkable that it is Béatrice Dalle’s acting debut. She is the engine on this glorious ride.
The film is faithful to the sentimentality of Philippe Djian’s original novel. It achieves some of the great emotional depth of a novel by cultivating ‘mood’ rather than the dull, numbing atmosphere one might expect from French cinema. Betty Blue prefers to focus on the ‘manic’ and not the ‘depressive’ side of Betty’s condition and we feel the same energy around her that Zorg does. Employing some of the richest most colourful cinematography I have seen, and an excellent soundtrack, we are as entranced as he is. The film leads our emotions instead of manipulating them. It takes risks, never flinching from displays of raw emotion.
Much of the mystique surrounding Betty Blue comes from its eroticism. It is a very graphic film to be sure, but it is not gratuitous. There is a strong expression of mutual pleasure and commitment between the lovers and there are many other scenes outside bedrooms portraying their tenderness and companionship.
I appreciate the trust the film gives its audience. Anyone who is viewing this movie strictly for the sex would do better with lesser films. Likewise, anyone who cannot get past the sexuality, would probably miss the deeper themes altogether. Those of us who are left are grateful for the way it weaves emotional and physical intensity. Rather than one standing in for the other, this is the rare film that shows them as mutually sustaining.
If this description appeals to you, by all means view the director’s cut. Likewise see it if you have seen and loved the general release version. The director’s cut comes in at over 3 hours (185 minutes), so if you have only a neutral interest in the film, I would suggest the 120 minute general release version first.
Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix
Writer(s): Philippe Djian (novel), Jean-Jacques Beineix
Runtime(s): 120 minutes, 185 minutes (France, director’s cut)
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.