I saw Betty Blue (original French title 37,2 Le Matin) for the first time in 1996 shortly after having read the book and it remains one of my favourite films to this day. Although there are many obvious reasons why a sixteen year old boy might like it, I think it does stand up to scrutiny beyond the sex and nudity. This post is a brief explanation of some of the obvious and not-so-obvious reasons why this is a film to be loved and cherished. (It was quite interesting to write this defence of a sexy film!)
Basically, it tells the story of Zorg (who narrates) and Betty, who have as the film starts known each other “for about a week”. The film follows events as their relationship develops and dark secrets from the past begin to emerge into their lives. Betty discovers Zorg’s novel and endeavours to get it published, while their adventures take them to Paris and then out to a piano shop in the countryside.
It goes without saying that spoilers now follow (if the previous paragraph wasn’t enough of a spoiler!).
I guess the first reason I love Betty Blue is the obvious reason. Béatrice Dalle is a very sexy lady and as Betty, she continues to have the same effect on me fifteen years on. There is a lot of sex and nudity. It strikes me as very realistic and there are none of the coy “top half” shots you might expect from a Hollywood movie. The opening shot is a tour de force continuous take of “are they / aren’t they?” love-making and the cut to a euphoric Zorg rushing home to save his chili con carne1 is brilliant.
Later such scenes are not as intense, mirroring the developing relationship between Betty and Zorg and the role that sex plays as the mood darkens. Despite the film’s English title, not all of the sexy action revolves around the central character. In fact one of the last erotic scenes of the film is where Zorg robs a bank dressed as a woman2 and it does not feature her at all.
It is clear to me that Betty Blue is a sexy film rather than a sex film, its emphasis on female sexuality is not exploitative and not all the sexy scenes are explicit or involve Betty (see aforementioned robbery scene and also when Betty’s friend Lisa returns home after a night out to find Zorg at the kitchen table writing). Nor do the more explicit scenes focus solely on presenting unattainable unrealistic love-making, there are scenes confronting tiredness and another character Annie confides in Zorg about her husband’s loss of libido since she gave birth. I think all the sex is tackled maturely and the only sleazy character in the film is taken against in a tremendous scene where you will uncomfortable if you side with the sleaze and get titillated!
I’ve already referred to “hilarious” scenes as I write and this is another reason why I love this film, there are a lot of incredibly funny moments. Perhaps the funniest is a scene (restored to the director’s cut on the DVD) in which a bin man with a hook for a hand savages a mattress left out on the street for collection. His colleague relates to Zorg that the man lost his hand as a result of feeding a similar mattress into a refuse truck and this lends the scene a little pathos, but the sight of the man hysterically (in both senses of the word) hacking away at the mattress in the background as this explanation is given makes for a perfectly bittersweet moment.
In fact, the biggest laughs throughout are generally bittersweet. Another example is the scene immediately after Eddy has been informed that his mother has died - there is an instant cut to Lisa helping him to tie a tie with a naked lady on it. The conclusion we are invited to come to is that this is the only black tie that he has.
Nevertheless, the film is very warm and genuine. It is, after all, a story of love and friendship. The tie scene immediately follows one where Zorg, Betty, Lisa and Eddy spend the evening getting drunk on tequila. The sense of friendship and community shines through both here and in the village where Betty and Zorg end up selling pianos in the shop Eddy inherits from his deceased mother. In a sense, these warm and cosy scenes serve to highlight the darkness and despair of Betty’s condition when it interjects.
The atmosphere of the film is built up with great camera work and mysterious music. The shots are not just of sultry bedrooms where the Mona Lisa smiles enigmatically on new lovers but also of the French countryside, of trains and their tracks, of sunsets and seaside. Sometimes the music feels a little like the wonky music we have come to expect in arty films that “mean something” (personally I would not want to own the soundtrack and listen to the music without the visuals) but most of the time it fits beautifully.
In cinematic terms then, it is an aesthetically pleasing film and not just due to the skin on show. Personally I view this as an iconic piece of cinema, you can understand its scenes and remember them as a shorthand for the emotions they convey - just as you can with other great movies like Metropolis, The Seventh Seal or There Will Be Blood. For me, Betty Blue bears comparison with those films even if it may be because I was an impressionable teenager when I first saw it!
I would defend Betty Blue from accusations of being too overtly sexy (example). I would perhaps prefer a better “translation” of the original French title, as the English one does sound like it was suggested by someone from marketing with hairy palms and sweat issues. I don’t really think of it as a blue movie. I think it is a grown up film that deals with difficult subject matter (love, infertility, death, mental illness) in a very direct and engaging way. It confronts the difficult and dark aspects while reassuring us that there is comfort to be had in our time together with those we love, even though that time may be short. The ending is not a happy one but it is one that will you cause to reflect.
This is a yet another French film starring Dominique Pinon! I swear the guy crops up in every French movie that I watch - and Alien Resurrection!
There is an interesting blog post about the book here. The book was given to me by my English teacher after I’d tried to loan her my copy of Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games. I think she had decided to try to make me think about girls rather than spaceships. Or something. Actually the novel is kind of beatnik and she had previously fuelled my interest in the beat poets - I still have the photocopy of Howl that she gave me. I have a feeling that she didn’t want Betty Blue back but I returned it to her anyway!
This is the English wikipedia article about the book’s author, Philippe Djian.
I don’t know why I have always assumed it is chili con carne, perhaps it is because it is about the only thing I would cook slowly on the hob like that, cookery naif that I am. Somehow if it were simply a lamb stew or a spag bol, it would seem too boring to drive home at such a speed for! ↩
Unfortunately this comically convincing disguise is used again in a tragic scene towards the end of the film. ↩