J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Betty Blue Uncut

Betty is mentally unstable and Zorg is an enabler. Isn’t love grand? After exploding on the scene with Diva, Jean-Jacques Beineix followed-up with Betty Blue, the turbulent love-story of the passionate Betty and her handyman boyfriend. Despite bringing renewed international buzz to French cinema with its initial 1986 release, Beineix's definitive cut never screened theatrically in America, though it was briefly available on home video. Happily, Betty Blue: the Director’s Cut will finally hit American screens, beginning with its New York opening this Friday.

After just one week together, it is clear to Zorg being with Betty is an intense experience. She is beautiful, but her behavior can be erratic. Things are usually fine when they are alone, but when outsiders intrude, like Zorg’s leering boss, she lashes out at provocations, both real and imagined. While hurling Zorg’s possessions out their shack window during a periodic fit, Betty stumbles across his long abandoned novel. Convinced of his genius, she types up his notebooks and begins submitting them to publishers, beginning a long chain of disappointments that will further destabilize her mental condition.

Life with Betty seems to follow a pattern. Things start out great, but then something upsets her, leading to an episode of acting out, like burning down their shack or attacking a publisher who rejected Zorg’s dubious manuscript. Eventually, calm returns, but the cycles continue, becoming more dramatic each time.

Beineix’s film is most definitely intended for adults. As Betty and Zorg, Béatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade have no secrets from viewers, since neither of their characters seems to own a robe. Dalle is also frequently in a state of extreme emotional exposure, simultaneously violent and vulnerable. It is a harrowing, unforgettable performance.

Betty Blue is a dark, disturbing love story, but not a cynical one. There are some tender moments that seem to make all the chaos worthwhile for the couple, evidently more of which are to be found in the extended director’s cut. They are quite effectively underscored by Gariel Yared’s haunting theme. In a particularly poignant scene, Zorg and Betty even play it on-screen as piano duet during the wake for a friend’s mother.

With a running time just over three hours, Betty Blue is longer than most historical epics, yet it never feels padded or excessive. Like Betty herself, the film varies drastically in mood, swinging from slapstick comedy to realistic tragedy, but there is always logic to its mania. It is an exhausting film, more for its emotional ups and downs rather than its considerable length, which deserves it critical acclaim and notoriety.

It opens Friday in New York at the Cinema Village, with subsequent openings set for Los Angeles’s Nuart July 3rd, Denver’s Starz Film Center August 21st, the Landmark Kendall Square in Boston September 11th, and the Landmark E-Street in D.C. on October 2nd.

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