Betty Blue: The Look of Love

In 1989, film critic Raphaël Bassan coined the term cinéma du look. Describing a tendency in French cinema that had begun in the early eighties and would continue into the nineties, Bassan identified commonalities in the work of Jean-Jacques Beineix, Leos Carax, and Luc Besson. These directors, who usually made films without strong ideological angles (at least compared with French political cinemas of the sixties and seventies), drew more inspiration from advertising, fashion, and comic books than they did from the high cinematic arts. They privileged colorful, expressionistic imagery over psychological realism, constructing worlds that border on the fantastic, and whose aestheticization gives their films’ stories—which often focus on marginalized, adrift youths in ill-fated romantic situations—a sense of heightened emotion and fatalism.

Cited as the “first French postmodern film” by American theorist Fredric Jameson, Beineix’s 1981 feature debut, Diva, would prove to be one of  the formative films of the cinéma du look, embodying the movement’s media-conscious, visually driven app­roach. Following a delivery boy in his obsession with a female opera singer and his simultaneous entanglement with gangsters and cops, Diva is a thriller of sorts, although it is less interested in advancing a taut narrative than in observing its characters’ behavior, or in giving itself over to sheer visual inventiveness. As Roger Ebert wrote on the film’s American release, “Here is a director taking audacious chances, doing wild and unpredictable things with his camera and actors, just to celebrate moviemaking.” 

Two years later, Beineix made the less well-received drama The Moon in the Gutter, starring Gérard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski. It wasn’t until 1986, with Betty Blue, that the director fulfilled the promise of Diva’s approach to story, character, and visual extravagance. Based on 37°2 le matin—Philippe Djian’s breakout 1985 novel about a passionate affair between an aspiring writer in his thirties who ekes out a living as a handyman and the wild, impulsive nineteen-year-old Betty—Betty Blue opens with a frank sex scene, framed with precision and shot by a steady, slow-moving camera, while we hear the male protagonist, Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade), state in voice-over: “I had known Betty for a week. We made love every night. The forecast was for storms.” As it happens, Zorg will weather the storms generated by Betty (Béatrice Dalle) better than she will.

The films of the cinéma du look have often been criticized (notably by the writers of Cahiers du cinéma) for being superficial, a charge from which Betty Blue has not been exempt. When the film came out, Serge Toubiana wrote in Cahiers that it was nothing more than a series of fragmented, childish images, even if those images were pretty to look at. Beineix had a background in directing commercials, on some of which Jean-François Robin, Betty Blue’s director of photography, had collaborated. Robin would later say that the two had intentionally shot certain scenes of Betty Blue as if showcasing a product, and it’s not hard to see that approach in the film’s incredibly striking use of color, from the candy pinks and turquoises of the beach cottages Zorg and Betty paint to the lemon-yellow Mercedes he buys to the scarlet of a dress she wears.

“Despite its ups and downs, sex and violence, mayhem and tragedy, this is often a world you’d like to visit.”

The self-consciousness of the film’s imagery, far from being disjointed from the story, often serves to set the emotional tone for a scene: to accentuate Betty’s recklessness, for example, or express the way the peace-loving everyman Zorg allows himself to be swept along by the sheer force of her personality. The saturation of the colors, the intensity of the lighting, the propulsiveness with which the characters are moved from one idiosyncratic setting or situation to another—all of these suit the narrative world Beineix is creating, a place that accommodates the implausible and even the fantastic. Betty reads twenty-five of Zorg’s notebooks in a single night, then, with her hunt-and-peck typing method, somehow turns them into a novel. A birthday cake is put into the trunk of a car with its candles lit and survives a long journey intact and still ablaze. The quirkiness extends to every character in Betty Blue, but they all manage to also remain believably charming and distinctive; the relationships between them are well-drawn and often moving. Despite its ups and downs, sex and violence, mayhem and tragedy, this is often a world you’d like to visit.

Today, the discussion of the movie tends to revolve around its extensive use of nudity, but critiques of Betty Blue as an exercise in pornographic misogyny miss the film’s complexity as well as its sympathy for its heroine. Beineix presents Betty to us through Zorg’s gaze, and ultimately shows us how damaging that gaze is for her. Because Zorg is invested in maintaining his idea of Betty as a wild, erotic fantasy come to life, whose purpose is to shake him out of his passivity and awaken him creatively and sexually, he neglects to see her as a complete person, and ignores the increasingly troubling signs of what is clearly mental illness until it is too late. Beineix is far from dogmatic in showing this, but by taking up Zorg’s perspective and presenting it dispassionately, he allows for a reading of the film in which the audience is implicated in this disservice to Betty and Zorg’s unexamined privilege is exposed, as it becomes more and more difficult to identify with his placidity in the face of his partner’s torment.

Also, as easy as it may be to view the camera’s lingering on Betty’s carnal appeal as sheer exploitation, in fact, Beineix gives Dalle, in her first film role, plenty of space to explore her character and take full possession of her sexiness, willfulness, dark sense of humor, and self-destructiveness. In that first coupling between Betty and Zorg, for example, not only does the camera dwell on his nudity as well as hers, it shows her pleasuring herself, something not often seen in mainstream sex scenes directed by men. A capricious woman of supreme sexual energy, Betty is an invigorating portrayal of female desire and agency as well as a force of entropy. 

Before Betty Blue’s initial rel­ease, Beineix made a three-hour edit of the film that he was pleased with. But, perhaps doubting himself after The Moon in the Gutter’s reception, he cut it down to two hours, thinking distributors would prefer the shorter length, and that version is what was originally seen in theaters. It wasn’t until five years later that his preferred three-hour version was released. In it, Betty’s downward spiral has more space in which to play out, and there is a better sense of the calm interstices between her violent episodes, the beauty of the world the characters inhabit, and the genuine romance at the film’s center.

When we meet Zorg, he is a caretaker at a community of beach bungalows, though, as we will learn, he once took a stab at writing. He is content with his life, happy enough to live in his shack on the beach and not think much about the notebooks full of writing that he keeps in a dilapidated cardboard box next to his mattress. Restless Betty is his opposite. In Dalle’s ferocious performance, Betty refuses to let the narrative or Zorg stagnate for a moment. She arrives one day at Zorg’s bungalow wearing only an apron fashioned into a halter dress and carrying suitcases, and from that point on, she lives with him. 

There is not only physical passion but also real tenderness between Betty and Zorg. Beineix depicts the couple as often being in the nude, in a way that does not always eroticize the two bodies but sometimes just shows the deep comfort and vulnerability of the relationship. Beineix and Robin used the warm color palette of Kodachrome film as a reference, and this early section of the movie in particular is suffused with the sun-drenched charm of vacation photographs. After discovering Zorg’s box of notebooks, Betty decides her easygoing boyfriend is the greatest writer of his time. She cooks elaborate meals for him while he does his chores. 

A scene in which Zorg and Betty sit on their porch at night—eating, drinking, laughing, and thoroughly immersed in each other—begins with an overhead shot showing the brightly lit beach carousel, and the circuslike music we hear throughout the movie plays. She tells him, “I’m happy being with you. I’d like to stay with you if I can.” She takes adorable Polaroids of the two of them painting the beach houses those pinks and turquoises, and, like children, they make the job into a game, racing to see who can finish first. But Betty is also prone to mood swings. She loses her temper violently after learning that Zorg’s boss expects her to earn her keep if she is to live with her boyfriend on the property, and that they’re supposed to paint every single bungalow. Zorg tells her, “I’ll paint the whole town pink just to stay with you, kitten.” But ultimately, she burns down Zorg’s shack after clashing with the boss, and the beach idyll comes to an end. The two flee for Paris to live in a bohemian hotel owned by her friend Lisa (Consuelo de Haviland).

At the Hotel de la Marne, where “all the rooms have a river view” but no other guests besides Zorg and Betty seem to be in residence, Zorg helps with various tasks while Betty throws herself into the project of getting his novel published, typing it up from the notebooks he has written in longhand. In the meantime, they form a close-knit group with Lisa and, soon, her new boyfriend, Eddy (Gérard Darmon). This section of the film is defined by its spirit of communal living and good times—music, laughter, drinking, dancing, shared coffee and rolls with jam in the lovely, filtered morning light, Eddy in his gorgeous silk pajamas. 

But Betty’s warmth and optimism are fragile, as her obsession with Zorg’s novel has her mailing out copies to publishers—even in the middle of the night—and rushing to check the mailbox for replies every morning, only to be crushed when she finds rejections. So Betty and Zorg’s life in Paris whiplashes between a cozy happiness—in which they remain childlike in their unawareness of the world around them and their lack of care about what anyone else thinks—and the shock and harm Betty causes when her behavior becomes erratic and violent, as it does with increasing frequency. She stabs with a fork a demanding customer at Eddy’s pizza restaurant (where she and Zorg have started working). In response to a particularly harsh rejection letter, she attacks an editor at his home, slashing his face with a metal comb.

“All along, Beineix and Dalle have been complicating any simplistic view of Betty as merely a sexual object, a wild fantasy, or a creative muse.”

The couple luck into another ad hoc place to live after Eddy’s mother dies and he asks them to take up residence in her house in a provincial town and run her piano store. They are largely content at first, breaking down walls to make the place their own. In one delicately moving scene, Zorg plays a simple, sleepy song for Betty on one of the showroom models; she joins in on a facing one, sweetly in sync. A few days later, she makes her first piano sale, and Zorg beams with pride. He adapts easily, making friends among the town’s colorful characters, but Betty's violence and irrationality continue to worsen. She punches her hand through a glass window, bloodying their home. When the result of a pregnancy test turns out to have been a false positive, she chops off her hair and begins to hear voices. By now she has succeeded in pulling Zorg fully into her desperate world. He steals cash at gunpoint; when she kidnaps a small boy for an outing to a toy store, she and Zorg run from the police together, hand in hand.

In a case of mythically bad timing, Betty, at the nadir of her self-destructive violence, gouges out one of her eyes and is hospitalized in shock, just before Zorg receives a phone call from a publisher letting him know that his novel has finally been accepted. He goes back to the hospital to share the news with Betty, only to find her catatonic. He caresses her breasts as he expresses his sadness, then attacks the doctor who tells him Betty may need to remain an inpatient indefinitely. Returning late at night in disguise, he says a tender goodbye and then smothers her with her pillow, as an act of mercy. In a sense, having fulfilled her role—as a source of excitement, sex, and inspiration—Betty can be dispatched after her labor delivers Zorg to the next level of his life, leaving him free to go home and begin his next novel in peace. But all along, Beineix and Dalle have been complicating any simplistic view of Betty as merely a sexual object, a wild fantasy, or a creative muse. 

Throughout the film, Betty alternately strives to inhabit and struggles against traditionally feminine roles. She cooks a wholesome dinner for Zorg at their beach bungalow, or scrubs the floors on her hands and knees. Inspired by his supposed genius, she becomes his secretary, typing his manuscript and mailing it to publishers when he couldn’t be bothered to. And when she believes she is pregnant, she revels in the prospect of motherhood. But each of these attempts to squeeze herself into a conventional gender mold, in order to achieve domestic bliss, is first frustrated by the reality of the world around her and then completely obliterated by violence at her own hands. In other words, she refuses to accept these failures submissively, instead demonstrating her auto­nomy and agency through her outbursts, her ability to take action by being destructive.

Zorg, though he loves Betty, is willfully oblivious to the turmoil at the root of her actions: when she tells him she hears voices in her head, for example, his response is that it’s only the wind she is hearing. The complexity that Dalle embodies in her portrayal of this character who is at once the object of a man’s fantasy and a real woman in psychic pain makes for an astonishingly rich debut performance, and Betty Blue catapulted her to international fame. The actor has gone on to make dozens of films, including with auteurs such as Claire Denis, Michael Haneke, and Jim Jarmusch. 

Betty Blue’s glossy surfaces and foregrounded spectacle make it one of the central films of the cinéma du look. But within the film’s sensual aesthetics lies a challenging portrait of a woman who cannot crush herself into the boxes provided for her, and a damning view of the male gaze that subsumes her identity and her struggles in order to maintain its own fantasy of sexual and romantic objectification. Ultimately, Beineix shows us, the cruelty of misogyny requires that once we and Zorg are finally forced to confront the truth of who Betty actually is, we can no longer let her exist.