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November

Walks you out of an emotional underworld back into the light —Marty Mapes (review...)

Cox lives three times in November

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“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” — Lao Tzu

The Big Bang

Betty Blue opens with a bang... so to speak. Two lovers go at it under a poster of the Mona Lisa, that most enigmatic of beauties. Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade), our narrator, explains that he met Betty (BĂ©atrice Dalle) only that week and they’d been making love ever since. In other words, this is a fling, yet Betty’s passion has already disrupted Zorg’s slow-paced life. There is a lot of sexuality and it seems gratuitous at first, but it isn’t (more on that later).

Betty arrives at the beach house
Betty arrives at the beach house

Zorg is a maintenance man, probably working for little more than room and board. Betty came like a bolt from the blue; we never learn where she was before the big bang.

The first 30 minutes take place in the low-rent beach resort where Zorg works, with hundreds of cabins standing on stilts in the sand. It’s a brilliant piece of location scouting — exotic yet attainable and maybe even a little undesirable — that makes Betty Blue unforgettable. And when Beineix shoots at dusk with the neon lights of a merry-go-round fighting the swallowing night, he marks himself as a director with a bold eye. If the movie ended after the first 30 minutes, and took place entirely on the strange beach, with the disruptive passion of the young and beautiful, it would still be a memorable and film.

Onward and Downward

Just as Betty starts losing interest in Zorg (and becoming a little violent and unpredictable — one could hypothesize that she’s bipolar), her passion is rekindled into purpose when she learns that Zorg is — was — a writer. She finds an old manuscript that Zorg had given up on. Betty insists that it’s good, and that with her help, they will make something of it. She overcomes his reluctance by burning their bridges (in a dramatic flare of cinematography) and dragging him to the city.

In the city, Betty teaches herself to type so she can work on the manuscript. They settle in with new friends, working at their pizzeria while Betty tries to get Zorg’s novel submitted to publishers. When the copies are distributed and the work runs out and, the ennui catches up to Betty again. And when they start getting rejections from publishers she loses it a little more, becoming violent and unpredictable.

The abandon with which Betty lived in the beginning was a turn-on, but that same overflowing force becomes more and more concerning. After the funeral of a friend’s mother, they start in on yet another new life, running the piano store of the deceased, which again calms Betty down. They conceive (which gives us the French title of the film), but it only raises the stakes for the next potential setback of violence and unpredictability.

37.2 in the Morning

The French title — 37.2 degrees in the Morning — makes a much better title. We in America don’t know what “37.2” means, but every review would explain that it’s the slightly elevated body temperature, in Celsius, of a pregnant woman. If the title had told you something about pregnancy, the sexuality wouldn’t have seemed so gratuitous. Their pregnancy — which when I first saw the film seemed like a too-convenient plot development — is obviously integral to the story if it’s in the title. And the change that pregnancy effects in Betty wouldn’t have seemed like such a surprising change of tone after 60 minutes of screen time.

“Betty Blue” doesn’t tell you much - only that it’s about a woman named Betty. “Blue” conveys sadness and makes you think about color (Beineix controls the palette of the film very consciously). It’s also the one note that Betty can play on piano when Zorg plays the bittersweet simple melody - she hits the minor 3rd, which is the blue note (or does she hit the minor 7, which is also kind of blue?) — but that’s probably a happy coincidence, and it doesn’t make more sense than the French title.

Beauty and Mystery

There can be beauty in tragedy, particularly when the thing that makes Betty so beautiful — her insatiable passion — is the main ingredient in her downfall. There is some mystery in what drives Betty, but you’re better off just taking her in stride than trying to figure out what’s going on inside her head. The inexplicable character motivations that were so frustrating in Beineix’s earlier film The Moon in the Gutter are here isolated to a single character. That works much better, because it gives the film a focus. The other characters ground the audience, whereas in Moon in the Gutter, the audience was adrift.

Betty Blue is being re-released in theaters this summer as a 3-hour director’s cut, and unfortunately, I think the shorter version was better. The three-hour version goes off on some weird tangents that don’t add to the story — one scene that feels particularly out-of-place has Zorg dressing in Betty-like drag to rob an armored transport company.

But he beauty of tragedy is still there, and the handsome young lovers are as youthful as ever. The movie is still enjoyable and still worth seeing, especially if you can see it from a film print on a big screen.

But if I watch Betty Blue again, I’ll probably opt for the shorter cut.