J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cine-Simenon: Betty

Betty is blue. How did she get so down-and-out?  That would be a condition many of Georges Simenon’s characters found themselves in. During the course of what is more of a psychological inquiry than a criminal investigation, viewers will learn the truth about the mysterious woman via flashbacks in Claude Chabrol’s Betty, which screens during the Anthology Film Archives’ Cine-Simenon retrospective.

It is fitting Betty Etamble found her way into The Hole.  The aptly named restaurant caters to lost souls and misfits.  Evidently, the rabbit is also delicious.  Observing the woman drinking herself into oblivion with a companion arguably even less stable than herself, Laure Levaucher takes Etamble under her wing.  Ensconcing her in an adjoining room at the Versailles Trianon, her home away from home, Levaucher slowly coaxes a confessional account out of Betty.

It is fair to say Etamble has made her share of mistakes, but she is rather self-aware of her compulsions and their origins in her childhood.  However, the stifling nature of her former life hardly helped matters.  In fact, there is probably plenty of blame to go around.  The nature of Levaucher’s interest in Etamble and vice versa is rather less clear.  In fact, Etamble’s intentions throughout are decidedly murky.

Overdue for his own New York retrospective, Chabrol was an uncannily subtle filmmaker, who excelled at hinting of dark doings just beyond our field of vision.  The deceptively simple Betty was definitely in his power zone, privileging character and mood over narrative.  The film’s essence is supposed to come to viewers through a slow dawning process rather than a sudden flash of revelation.  Mostly it works, but that necessarily means Betty is a purposeful slow burner.

Patrons of French cinema will also understand why Betty promises greatness as a post-divorce collaboration between Chabrol and his ex-wife and frequent muse, Stéphane Audran, whose warm elegance as Levaucher stands in marked contrast to the severe chill of the film’s characters and milieu. 

The film is sort of a family affair, starring Marie Trignant, the ill-fated daughter of Audran’s first husband, Jean-Louis, in the title role.  Sadly, her sensationalized and unnatural death reads like fodder for a Simenon novel.  She is eerily convincing indulging in self-destructive hedonism and reckless gamesmanship.  Oddly though, Chabrol consistently undercuts her as a femme fatale figure, presenting her in a deliberately unappealing (albeit frequently nude) manner.  More often than not, her Etamble is booze-addled and inarticulate, looking disheveled with conspicuous raccoon rings encircling her eyes.

Betty represents the road less taken in film noir, focusing on the intimacy of betrayal instead of a traditional crime story.  The mood remains the same, but the pace is decidedly more languid.  Recommended for fans of Chabrol and Simenon’s “roman durs,” Betty screens tonight (8/13), Friday (8/16), and Saturday (8/17) at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of their Cine-Simenon series.

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