Betty Blue (Director’s Cut) (37°2 le matin)

France (1986) Dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix

The third outing from French auteur Jean-Jacques Beineix has polarised opinion in its near 30 year existence between arthouse lovers who adore it and mainstream critics, such as the legendary US scribe Roger Ebert, who dismissed it as soft porn.

To be fair to Ebert, it’s hard to not have such misgivings about film in which the very first shot is a naked couple going at it like rabbits while a male voice over informs us “I had known Betty for a week. We screwed every night.” but there is a lot more to Betty Blue than the rampant nudity and frequent coital union. It’s a character driven love story also serving as a study of relationships, life, laughter, dreams, disappointment and tragedy.

Our narrator in the opening scene is Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) a mild mannered handyman who lives in a shack on a beach. Betty (Béatrice Dalle) arrives one day having quite her bar job and moves in with Zorg. She finds a pile of notebooks which are Zorg’s ideas for a novel and after reading them gets angry with him for wasting his talents as a labourer. Following a falling out with Zorg’s demanding boss (Claude Confortès) Betty torches their shack and the pair flees to the city.

They live with Betty’s widowed friend Lisa (Consuelo De Haviland) and her new boyfriend Eddy (Gérard Darmon) a restaurant owner. While Zorg works odd jobs Betty types out his novel and sends it to every publisher in Paris. As they await the responses their relationship goes through many peaks and troughs when Betty’s mental condition begins to decline.

The original French title 37°2 le matin translates to 37.2°C in the morning which refers to the normal body temperature of a pregnant woman at the start of the day, and is the same title of the novel by Philippe Djian from which this film is adapted. The original version was two hours long; Beineix’s extended cut is longer by 55 minutes. Having not seen the shorter version I can only make the bold – and possibly inaccurate – assumption that the story development was jettisoned in favour of the sexual content, hence Mr. Ebert’s disdain for this film.

It is at times quite and endearing tale of a pure love that is blighted by circumstance and tragedy, taking in as much levity as it is does heavy drama. Betty is quite a difficult character to read at first since she arrives like a tornado without any backstory and literally turns Zorg’s life upside down. She soon wins the audience over with her infectious energy and galvanising of the meek Zorg, especially against his boss, whose car Betty covers in pink paint!

While working at Eddy’s restaurant a stroppy customer drives Betty to anger, stabbing her with a fork! This is the first real sign that Betty has a much darker side to her but Zorg is easily forgiving until it emerges a second time when a snotty rejection letter arrives; Betty’s responses is to visit the publisher’s home and slash his face with a comb! After Eddy’s mother dies, Zorg and Betty take over her piano shop and while business is slow they still remain together until an attempt to get pregnant fails, sending Betty into a downward spiral.

Since no definite diagnosis is given for Betty’s behaviour the audience is left wondering how to relate to her – should we sympathise with her or fear her as a loony? Zorg has no such qualms and despite the odd falling out, remains loyal through thick and thin. Yet despite the dour final act there is a lot of warmth generated through their relationship which is very much palpable beyond the sex. Betty is the kind of kick up the backside Zorg needs and his exponential growth throughout the film is a testament to that as much as his dedication to Betty in her darkest hour.

As dour as this sounds there is much humour to enjoy, albeit often very dark – such as Eddy only black tie for his mother’s funeral having a naked woman on it; a hook handed bin man attacking a mattress; our naked couple struggling to open a sofa bed with little success; or Zorg being crudely propositioned by the frustrated wife of his next door neighbour! Only the bank robbing scene which Zorg commits while in drag, as amusing as it is, feels incongruous and surreal due to its odd placement in the narrative.

I must confess to not being much of a fan of Béatrice Dalle but I have to say she is wonderful as Betty. Vivacious, energetic and charismatic yet full of pathos, Dalle handles the comedy and flirtatious aspects of her character with the same verve as the drama and the final tragic act. And this was her debut role!

Dalle also creates a credible chemistry with Jean-Hugues Anglade which is the centrifugal force behind the film, with Anglade being the perfect foil for every iteration of Betty’s changing moods. As Betty begins to crack Anglade picks up the baton to carry the energy of the film while ably supported by a strong cast, including early roles for noted faces in today’s French cinema (Dominique Pinon and Vincent Lindon to name two).

Jean-Jacques Beineix has given us a rather unique love story in Betty Blue and perhaps its resonance is deeper as this extended version tells the whole story. Aesthetically it is an 80’s film but production wise it is offers movie film buffs plenty to admire and gradually escapes the shackles of time placement. It might not delve too deeply into the topic of mental illness as it should but it shows both the light and dark of how this affects a loving relationship.

If you can stand the run time (which while a little bloated, honestly flies by) then you will be rewarded with a rich slice of vibrant and thoughtful French cinema.