Emphasizing a slick visual style, proponents of Cinema du Look founded a mode of film production that was a postmodern reaction to, and rejection of, the more politicised approach taken by the New Wave. Recognizing the aesthetic properties of pop videos, despite critical commentary which regarded them as disposable ephemera, this movement sought to employ a strong visual dynamic ensuring that spectacle became a determining factor in the construction of narrative forms.
A key name in the founding of this movement was Jean-Jacques Beineix. Emerging onto the cinema landscape with the 1981 film Diva Beineix dazzled audiences and critics, with a thrilling storyline about an opera enthusiast hunted by the police. Coupling a strong sense of genre awareness with inventive cinematography, the director was justly recompensed for such an audacious approach to the crime film at the César Award ceremony where the film was the winner in four separate categories including Best Debut.
After a less than successful follow up, Moon in the Gutter, Beineix was sent a copy of the novel 37°2 le matin by Phillipe Dijan ahead of its publication. Convinced that this story of a tempestuous love affair between between a mentally unstable girl and a handy man had the potential to combine his interest in crafting memorable tableaux alongside an emotionally charged storyline, the director immediately optioned the property.
First released in 1986, Betty Blue seeped into the cannon of all time great cult films thanks to a striking, yet simple, poster which adorned many a student’s bedroom and ignited nascent interest in world cinema. A gateway film, for some, it arrived on the cultural landscape at precisely the right time. Previously, access to alternative (i.e. non Hollywood) forms of cinema was restricted to film clubs and occasional screenings at universities or film festivals but by the mid 1980s several labels had proven a previously untapped fanbase would voraciously hoover up whatever titles were made available. Releases on VHS and DVD may have sought to service Betty Blue as best as possible given the available technology but the then attainable versions tempered the film’s precisely constructed rich palate of colours knitting them into a muted version which diminished the movie . Thanks to a supreme restoration from Second Sight fans can once again bathe in the luxurious warmth of cinematographer Jean-François Robin’s deceptively simple lighting, enjoying the full range of colours (and their hidden meanings) for the first time since its initial cinema release.
In French speaking territories the film retains the book’s title, 37°2 le matin, but due to possible confusion amongst English audiences about the precise significance of this temperature the alternative, Betty Blue, was selected based on a suggestion made by the director’s American girlfriend. Perhaps wanting the audience to become fully absorbed in Betty’s character development, Beineix successfully lobbied to cast an unknown performer in the role instead of a known actor who would undoubtedly have brought a considerable amount of baggage in terms of associations with past roles. After a screen test that delivered the precise levels of vulnerability, excitability, and sexual magnetism sought by the director the role was given to Beatrice Dalle and in playing the part she created a character which would from then on define her fictional image within the public’s imagination and be cited by the press when writing about her off-screen experiences.
Betty is a force of nature who falls in lust, then love, with handy-man Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade – Braquo). A tragic tale of obsession and possession ignited by a refusal to accept the here and now. Initially setting out its stall as a story about a highly sexed young couple, the story pivots upon the discovery of an unpublished manuscript and suddenly Zorg is transformed, in Betty’s eyes, into an undiscovered creative genius. Unshaken in her belief that he is wasting his talents painting run down holiday shacks in an obscure seaside resort she torches Zorg’s home and drags him away to Paris with the promise of a more fulfilling existence in Paris.
As Zorg acquaints himself with his new life he toils away first as a plumber and then at differing stages waiter and piano shop manager whilst Betty embarks on a crusade to get his novel printed. Each rejection exacerbates her underlying mental illness. Defined primarily through action, we learn relatively little about Betty’s back-story so the precise nature of her condition is open to interpretation. Initially displaying symptoms associated with manic depression, her inability to cope with bad news concerning Zorg’s manuscript decline amplifies her destructive behaviour and contributes to the, implied, development of full blown schizophrenia.
Age has not dimmed this film’s potency, Betty Blue is even more bewitching in this enhanced edition. A movie that self consciously plays with theories about the role of the male gaze within cinema whilst celebrating vivaciousness (in front and behind the lens). Second Sight’s two disc package contains the theatrical release and more substantial director’s version alongside a specially commissioned hour long documentary featuring all the key players involved in making this exceptional film. An added bonus is Beatrice Dalle’s original screen test.
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