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Criterion Collection: Betty Blue (1986) | Blu-ray Video Review

It’s time to take another look at the famed Cinema du Look auteurs of 1980s and 1990s French cinema, and what better way to begin than revisiting its originator, who burned brightest (and then burnt out) — Jean-Jacques Beineix. Back in 2009, a box-set of Beineix’s six features, which ranged from 1981’s Diva to 2001’s Mortal Transfer allowed for a recuperation, but Criterion digitally restores his iconic juggernaut, 1986’s Betty Blue, to all of its pristine, color saturated glory.

Beineix picked up nine Cesar nods (winning Best Poster) and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, while introducing the world to the ferociously beautiful Beatrice Dalle, whose own public persona at times lived up to the unpredictable outbursts of her eponymous character—a woman who refused to be tethered to cultural expectations of appropriate feminine behavior despite the privilege of her exceptional beauty. Beineix adapts from the novel 37°2 le matin by Philippe Djian (who penned Oh…, adapted into Elle by Paul Verhoeven in 2016).

Working as a handyman in a seaside town, the ambivalent drifter Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) has become infatuated with a beautiful woman, Betty (Beatrice Dalle), who might as well have drifted in from the sea. Their romance is troubled by Zorg’s boss, who owns the bungalow he lives in, and insists if the girl is to stay, she must earn her keep by helping Zorg re-paint all the bungalows he owns. Betty’s disastrous response is the first of several key sequences which speaks to a potential emotional imbalance—but Zorg, happy to be with a woman who has championed his expansive manuscript as a work of genius, absconds with her to Paris, where they hole up in her friend Lisa’s (Consuelo de Haviland) empty hotel. They’re soon joined by her new boyfriend Eddy (Gerard Darmon), and the quartet enjoy a happy existence together, mostly, until Eddy’s mom dies and he offers Zorg and Betty the chance to run his family’s piano store in Marvejols. They accept the offer, but Betty’s behavior becomes more and more erratic, pushed into madness after a false pregnancy test which sets a crash course for tragedy. Along the way, they meet a host of characters, including an ineffectual drug dealer played by Dominique Pinon and a gung-ho cop played by Vincent Lindon, all subdued by the glow of the formidable love exemplified by Zorg and Betty.

Film critic Raphael Bassan’s 1989 coining of the term ‘cinema du look,’ which charged its creators (Luc Besson, Leos Carax and Beineix) with prizing style over substance and spectacle over narrative, and often had key features of young, troubled lovers whose relationships were often compromised by genre dynamics. If Beineix’s debut Diva was the first in this supposed canon, it’s his Betty Blue and Carax’s 1986 The Night is Young (Mauvais Sang) which stand at the apex of this mini-movement, which petered out at the end of the age of excess, with Besson and Carax (whose 1992 title The Lovers on the Bridge mirrors Blue in many ways) each experiencing their own metamorphoses (the former crossing over to Hollywood action films and the latter forging onward through troubled arthouse endeavors).

Though its shot like an ad for a capitalistic fairy tale (courtesy of Jean-Francois Robin), Beineix moves through three distinct movements in his three hour director’s cut (initially, he released the title as a two hour cut, nervous about reception thanks to the devastating reaction to his 1983 sophomore film The Moon in the Gutter, which competed at Cannes and starred Gerard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski). From carnivalesque fantasy on the seaside town of Gruissan, to the idyll of communal living in Paris, to the tragic finale in the sleepy town of Marvejols, Betty Blue is an incredibly intimate love story about unrealistic expectations and mental illness.

Beineix basically creates the antithesis of the Hollywood studio women’s pictures, switching to a masculine perspective which allowed for many critiques of the film’s supposed misogyny. Yet both Anglade and Dalle are equally nude, and Beineix plays interestingly with gender roles and color—Dalle is outfitted in vibrant blues and red while Anglade is associated with pink and yellow. Eventually, the third act requires him to be in drag as he goes to delirious lengths to care for his ailing mistress.

But if there’s any point to Betty’s tragic demise, it’s of the heteropatriarchal culture at large rather than resting solely on the laurels of Zorg, who chooses to ignore and overlook his lover’s increasingly unstable mood swings and admission of hearing voices. Jean-Hugues Anglade, who favors Paul Henreid, gets a Now, Voyager­-esque trademark, which consists of a rather violent drink mix of liquor and seltzer, a concoction he makes often, supposedly as a way to increase the carbonation. Instead, it’s a lovely metaphor for their tempestuous love, which burns briefly but passionately, and exists in an idiosyncratic love story which can be aped, borrowed from and criticized for its heteronormative tendencies, but can never successfully be created as poetically as it is in Betty Blue.

Film Rating: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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