Video Vault: Betty Blue

The best (and worst) classic flicks and cult favorites

“Betty Blue”
Gaumont, 1986
Starring: Beatrice Dalle, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Consuelo de Haviland, Gerard Darmon
Directed by: Jean-Jacques Beineix

The plot: Zorg (Anglade), a 34-year-old failed writer, makes a living as a handyman for a vast community of beach houses. The much younger Betty (Dalle), a volatile, impulsive young woman, becomes his lover and the two live in his shack on the beach. Betty finds a stack of Zorg’s notebooks and deems them to be a novel. She decides he is a genius and will type the manuscript herself with two fingers. After an argument with Zorg’s swinish boss, she sends the shack up in flames. The two escape to the outskirts of Paris, where Betty’s friend Lisa (de Haviland) owns a small hotel. There they work happily in the pizzeria of Lisa’s lover Eddy (Darmon), but a fight erupts and Betty stabs a customer with a fork. It slowly dawns on Zorg that Betty is more than volatile — she is mentally ill. She submits Zorg’s novel to various publishers, and Zorg hides the rejection slips. She finds one and, going to the publisher’s house, slashes his face with a comb. A false-positive pregnancy sends Betty into a depression, then deeper into uncontrollable madness.

Why it’s good: This is romance on the scale of high tragedy. We have all encountered personalities described as volatile, and Betty’s character, as written by director Beineix, and beautifully realized by Dalle, rings completely true to life. Anglade perfectly limns Zorg as a good-natured slob, a nice guy who lacks the ambition to even promote his own excellent writing. Zorg likes to cook chili, drink tequila, and make endless love to Betty. This is a genuine love story, but sex seems like a character itself in a way only the French could manage (the very opening scene startles by presenting intense, fully nude copulation between the pair). A Gallic sensibility that yes, sex is an expression of love, but also merely an enjoyable pastime, permeates this beautifully photographed and lovingly directed film. Gabriel Yared’s score is warm and haunting simultaneously, like the best of Burt Bacharach.

The legacy: Five years earlier, Beineix made a huge splash with his goofy, charming thriller, “Diva,” which almost did for French cinema what Godard’s “Breathless” had done 20 years earlier. Although “Diva” impressed with its fast and flashy irony, “Betty Blue” is a far more mature work, so dense that the 185-minute 2005 director’s cut defies the viewer to even competently recall the vast number of scenes. Along with the exquisite films of Bertrand Blier, Beineix’s ’80s work ranks as the best from French cinema during this period. Now 69, he has chosen to work only in France. By all means, see the full director’s cut, available together with the still-marvelous theatrical release on both Blu-ray and DVD.