Considering the way Jean-Jacques Beineix opens his third and most notorious feature, Betty Blue, it’s hard to argue against the fact that the director, at the very least, knows what his chief assets are. Just as the opening credits fade, the eponymous firecracker (Béatrice Dalle) and her affable lover, Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade), are in the midst of an epic fuck session in Zorg’s beachside bungalow. Beineix trains his camera directly on these writhing figures and only pushes in from there, as Zorg takes the role of narrator. “I had known Betty for a week. We screwed every night. The forecast was for storms,” are Zorg’s first words, and what follows does not betray that statement. Betty and Zorg’s near-constant banging allows Beineix to highlight such recurring images as Dalle’s derriere and Anglade’s sculpted abdomen. Their furry crotches appear on screen with some frequency as well.
Of course, getting freaky isn’t the only thing going on in Beineix’s world—just the most interesting. A closeted fiction writer, Zorg initially works as a handyman who’s given the task of painting all bungalows in his boss’s development, an immense task that Betty offers to help him with. Zorg’s boss, a short, crude, and presumptuous man, brings out the worst in Betty, and after talking down to Zorg one day, she throws a bucket of pink paint on his cherry sports car. Beineix is quick to show that Betty’s volatility stems past the bedroom, teasing a few of the more outlandish emotional responses she’ll give Zorg over the course of the film. Setting fire to Zorg’s bungalow after a fight is relatively minor in her repertoire, but then it also secures Zorg’s commitment to her as they hit the road together and find a place with Betty’s best friend (Consuelo de Haviland).
Zorg picks up a series of odd jobs, including a position as a waiter in his friend Eddy’s (a very good Gerard Darmon) Italian restaurant while Betty goes about fishing for a publisher to commit to Zorg’s massive novel. Out of fear of her reaction, Zorg hides a wealth of rejection notices that insult his abilities as a writer. Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin were kinder, but only marginally, and they were certainly in the minority when the film was released in the winter of 1986. Pioneering the so-called cinema du look, as it was called, Betty Blue certainly has a negligible style, but it’s one that reimagines it’s setting as a plasticized playland, where colors pop but compositions lack any sort of meaningful artistic substance to convey. Indeed, the film flies by and feels weightless, like a spectacular rainbow-colored hydrogen balloon that passes out of our memory the moment we lose sight of it.
Beineix, who adapted the script from a Philippe Djian novel, idealizes both his characters, which makes them seem less human. Zorg is a prototype of the new sensitive man, excited by monogamous love no matter how volcanic his better half may be. He’s kind, understanding, giving, and funny where Betty is sexy, passionate, dangerous, and unpredictable. She’s an optimized idol of crazy love, which makes her reaction to a pregnancy and her body’s subsequent rejection of the pregnancy explainable but truly unbelievable. The bare-minimum scintillation that Beineix derived from Dalle’s admirable performance becomes the reasoning for a final act that seems more in line with a Brian De Palma film than Beineix’s. A scene where Zorg cross-dresses to gain entry to Betty’s hospital room insinuates plenty about the gender dynamic between the doomed lovebirds, but Beineix never cultivates the idea beforehand; the scene plays out with all the charm of a lazy, ill-conceived ruse.
There are, in fact, times when the entire film feels like a an elaborate joke, and one can only dream of what the mischievous Paul Verhoeven might have done with this material. Sadly, Beineix goes for gloomy self-seriousness, the results of which, though not unpleasant, ring hollow and insincere. The dangers of belief—in true love, in absolute art, in fate and in one another—are at the heart of Betty Blue, but we’re never allowed to feel the moral tonnage that comes with these beliefs and the vacuous space that’s left behind when they fail. We remain at arm’s length while Beineix indulges in his own perverse game of dollhouse, using anatomically correct versions of Ken and Barbie.
Cinema Libre's 1080i/AVC-encoded transfer is watchable, and that's me being very gracious. On the sunny side, color, detail, and clarity have all been negligibly improved from the DVD released in 2009. The transfer has also, however, been filtered in an attempt to stabilize motion judder. The effect is overtly smooth-looking and very distracting, like some of the poorer transfers given BBC programs over the years. Another effect, ironically, is that a noteworthy amount of scenes look as if they are sped up, which proves very annoying, but not impossible to overcome. The audio hasn't been treated all that well either, given a simple, underwhelming yet completely suitable Dolby 2.0 transfer. The soundtrack doesn't strike the balance with dialogue and atmosphere that it should. The result is that Gabriel Yared's score often sounds like it's lost in back of the mix. The disc is suitable to watch, but we're talking just barely.
Even if this is a stopgap release until the inevitable packaging of Betty Blue's extended director's cut, this package offers very little other than the movie to root through. A video interview with writer-director Jean-Jacques Beineix is the only extra featured here and it offers a broad, not terribly insightful remembrance of the film.
Introducing the world to the galvanic, incomparable Béatrice Dalle constitutes the only noteworthy facet of Betty Blue.