You would be forgiven for thinking it’s strange that I have chosen a film that is widely known for being an erotic drama as one of my choices for our “Celebration of Women” month. Betty Blue famously opens with an explicit, full-length sex scene, which probably wasn’t staged as the two main actors: Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hughes Anglade were in a relationship at the time of filming. It is possibly a surprise that the character of Betty (Blue)—and indeed Beatrice Dalle herself—would inspire me as a woman in a way not wholly related to her sexual allure. As that is what Betty was painted to be on the surface—and what the film became notorious for—she was a sex object, a poster girl for teenage boys with a little Je ne sais quoi about them. But, dip your toes in the water, and you will see that this film is a spectacle of beauty, passion, and obsession—ending with madness and sadness.
Despite her tragic ending, for me, Betty is one of the greatest female on-screen icons because of her unashamed sexuality, her tour-de-force attitude and determination to succeed.
I was introduced to Betty at a young age. Too young an age to watch the film. Released in 1986, I was just seven years old. My brothers are nine and eleven years older than me, and they were two of the boys who had posters of her on their walls. I was mesmerised by her beauty—I still am. I am pretty comfortable with my heterosexuality; I never wanted her; I wanted to be her. And that was just from her picture. I was explicitly told not even to attempt to watch the film, so of course, I wanted to see her in action so badly. One day, when my parents were at work, and my brother doing god knows what in his bedroom with his girlfriend, I sneaked the VHS to my other brother’s bedroom and played it. That was my introduction to real sex. It was not the romantic notions I’d seen on TV in soap operas. Shocked, I turned it off. I would guess I was around nine years old at this time.
It would be another five years before I watched the film past the first minute. But in those in-between days, my mind had always wandered back to Betty—as it would with anything that is forbidden. Teenage hormones took over, and I was beginning to find myself. I didn’t want to be the awkward, plain, freckly blonde girl anymore. I wanted to be like Betty; I wanted to wear polka-dot dresses, red lipstick, and my hair brunette. So I did.
Betty Blue was Beatrice Dalle’s first acting role, which is quite extraordinary when you watch her. She steals every single scene, and not just because of the way she looks, but her facial expressions are just so alluring. Her eyes sparkle with excitement like a little girl; seconds later, they are full of sadness. We learn early on that Betty is wild, but that men have badly wounded her. Some may say she’s contradictory—she wants male attention for sure—she wears just an apron when she arrives at Zorg’s place with her suitcase, but it is only Zorg’s attention she wants; she’s not interested in anyone else. Feeling sexy makes you sexy; it’s just a fact of life. And feeling sexy feels good. Yet, it is male attention that gets her into trouble from the beginning. She is fired from her job by her boss after he touches her and she spurns his advances. As a 14-year-old who had just been sexually assaulted by a friends father, Betty’s unwillingness to allow men to do whatever they wanted with her, purely because of the way she looked and chose to dress was very powerful to me.
Why shouldn’t she dress to look pretty and sexy? Why should any woman deny herself the pleasure of feeling good about themselves because men can’t control themselves? Betty lived in my soul from there on in. It was time to take my power back and never let any man take me without my permission ever again.
Director, Jean-Jacques Beineix, captures the arid heat of the French summer exquisitely in Betty Blue. Hazy purple and yellow skies, beads of sweat adorn the foreheads of even the most aged of men. You can almost hear the heat through the musical score, which plays not only over the top of the film but is merged into scenes; such as Zorg and Betty playing segments of the music on the piano. Bringing the two together absorbs you fully into the atmosphere. Gabriel Yared did a wonderful job with the soundtrack. I would listen to it regularly as a teen, and hearing it now brings back warm and melancholy memories of summers gone by.
The opening sex scene between Betty and Zorg is filmed in one long shot: one angle slowly moving closer to their naked bodies, from the initial throes of passion to climax. It is so natural, so intense, and so beautiful. You can almost feel the heat in the air, their sex like a storm brewing. The scene is set to the sounds of a fairground carousel playing a tune tinged with insanity; creepy and foreboding, and unmistakably French.
The next shot is the morning after, and a pot almost boiling over on the stove. Zorg gets there just in time to take it off the heat; the food is perfect. This time he was lucky. The steaming pot is symbolic of Betty. Right now she might be simmering away to perfection, but she’s always just a few seconds away from flipping the lid. The film is narrated from the perspective of Zorg. It’s funny then that his telling of his role in Betty’s life isn’t defensive—maybe Jean-Jacques Beineix didn’t want him to be thought of in a positive light, or perhaps he thought he was? You see, Betty is portrayed as a live wire. Every time she stands up for herself, men call her crazy. Yet, pretty much every man talks about her as if she’s not right there beside them. They speak to Zorg about her, objectify her, and he allows that to happen—he just appears to be smug that she is his girlfriend, like a prized trophy. He rarely stands up for her when she needs him to the most. Betty always has to fight for her own and Zorg’s dignity.
Zorg is a handyman. His shack is rented to him by his boss, who owns another 499 huts just like Zorg’s. When his boss hears that Zorg has a girl shacked up with him, he comes around and sits ogling her naked body while she sleeps. It’s hardly surprising that she doesn’t take kindly to this. Zorg doesn’t defend her; instead, he kowtows to his boss, even agreeing that he and Betty will paint all 500 shacks as payment for him sleeping in late and having Betty there without permission.
When Betty learns of this she loses her cool, pours pink paint over his Jag, and then later when he paws at her aggressively in an argument—revealing her lack of underwear—she pushes him off the balcony onto a pile of sand and shows herself to him. Belittling and publicly shaming him for the pervert and misogynist he is. Betty takes the power away from him, takes control of her own body. Then she burns down the shack like a boss.
There’s no denying that Betty’s actions are off the wall, but she never behaves like this without reason. Torching Zorg’s home was cruel, yes, but even then it was with good intentions. During her ‘meltdown’ she discovered books that Zorg had written years prior. No-one else had ever read them, and Zorg was initially uncomfortable with it, but she saw something in him that no-one else had. She had a reason to believe in him. A reason to believe in them; that they really could make a go of things while they were still young. They were poor, but they had time on their side, and Betty’s extreme determination. And it is extreme. I know this because I also have it. That kind of drive can be a great attribute at times, but when it morphs into obsession, it can become dangerous.
With their home gone, they travel to Paris to stay with her best friend, Lisa, in her hotel. Zorg fixes up the hotel in exchange for rent, and Betty types up Zorg’s book. She spends day and night slogging over it, never taking a break, barely looking up from the page. She starts over every time she makes an error; it has to be perfect. She pushes for his talent as a writer to be recognised—her belief in him way stronger than his own. She’s not in it to ride on the coattails of his fame and fortune, and this isn’t her wanting to be in the spotlight, it is about achievement and finding a way out of the mundanity of life while bringing him the glory she feels he deserved.
I understand this way of thinking so clearly. It may be that her opinion of herself was so low that she had to find hope in someone else which, of course, isn’t healthy. But she does it out of love just as much. I remember buying my ex a computer so he could learn Computer Aided Design. His dream was to make video games. He’s now a manager at Xbox in Seattle. While we split a long, long time ago, I still feel so good about this. It makes you feel a little like an angel when you do things that help steer people down a path of success. It is not about the credit; it’s pride—the joy of watching from the sidelines. Other people’s achievement can be a reward.
And when there is no reward? That’s when things start to look very dark. You start strong, you power through every day with optimism. When that day ends without accomplishment, you hold on for tomorrow. Tomorrow comes, and the story repeats itself. Slowly you begin to unravel. Disappointment leads to tunnel vision; the ‘thing’ becomes the only thing on your mind. It is a disease, and it is all that is important. You ask yourself, “how do I succeed?” “What am I doing wrong?” “Why am I being punished?” You neglect the good people around you and fail to see the joy in what you already have. Betty absorbed this more strongly than most. After sending Zorg’s manuscript to every publisher in town, she waits patiently for the moment of reward to come. Day after day. Nothing.
Lisa’s new boyfriend, Eddy, gives both Betty and Zorg a job as waiting staff at his pizzeria. With a temperament like Betty’s, it was never going to go well. One obnoxious female diner pushes her too far and complains about her attitude. Betty loses her cool and stabs her in the arm with a fork. Zorg slaps Betty repeatedly to calm her down. Of course, she shouldn’t have done that, but she was pushed. Betty never does anything she isn’t forced to. Zorg never berates her; even worse, he apologises for her, excuses her behaviour by telling people she’s on her period, demeaning her when she needs his support the most.
Zorg attempts to protect her from the rejection letters he receives about his manuscript, but one slips through the net, and this one is particularly cutting.
“I’ve read everything, but nothing like what you had the poor taste to send to us. Your writing shows all the signs of AIDS. I return this nauseating flower you call a novel. Rely on me for publicity, leave that thing where it belongs…in the quagmire of your brain”.
Betty doesn’t fly off the handle—at least not straight away. She plots her revenge and manipulates her way into the home of the publisher who wrote the scathing review. She attacks him on the threshold to his apartment, slashes his face with a comb, leaving him needing eight stitches. Betty doesn’t allow people to get away with being complete arseholes, and you have to admire her for that. Why should that man get away with being so cruel to someone trying to do something with their life? Why not give positive criticism if you are in the position to? Betty teaches lessons, almost always at her own expense. It is her fearlessness and lack of remorse that is troubling. She’s a woman with nothing to lose, but Zorg was happy with his laidback existence before she came along—and she can’t quite grasp why. Nevertheless, he still believes she is the best thing that has ever happened to him, and there is no doubt that he does love her—at least the idea of her—and her unpredictable nature brings some much-needed vitality to his life.
Betty is arrested for her attack on the publisher but gets away with it. Fortunately for her, the investigating officer is also a struggling writer with 27 rejections under his belt. He admires Betty’s attitude, and while he can’t let her off personally, he tells Zorg that he has to persuade the publisher not to press charges. Zorg takes a leaf from Betty’s book and visits the publisher, threatens him and dowses him in Martini until he agrees to drop the charges. Zorg tells him he has nothing to lose—nothing but Betty. She has put him in the same position as her.
It’s easy to forget amongst the pain and passion of this film, just how funny it is too. Eddy receives the bad news that his mother has died during the celebration of Betty’s release. Eddy is flamboyant; he wears silk dressing gowns (and not much else) at every opportunity. The only black tie he owns that he wears to his mothers funeral is emblazoned with a naked lady. After his mother’s death, Eddy asks Zorg and Betty to run her piano store and live in her flat above it, which is quite the gesture. Betty can’t sleep in a dead woman’s bed, understandably. This leads to the pair of them attempting—hilariously—to put up a sofa bed while naked. It’s not sexy at all, but it is one of those moments in a relationship that would still make you laugh even years later.
Betty Blue has a penchant for the surreal too. In a scene that wouldn’t seem strange in Wild at Heart or any David Lynch commercial, a refuse collector with a hook instead of a right hand, from out of nowhere, rips apart the dead mother’s mattress that Zorg has left on the street for collection. It was a mattress in the dump truck that led to the loss of his hand—clearly, that trauma is buried comically deep. It’s funny (note my sarcasm) that his violent episode is played for laughs, yet Betty’s unpredictable behaviour is taken deadly seriously. She is deemed crazy; something to be scared of, yet he’s a man with a hook hand going bananas, and they all just sit around and watch like he’s a clown. This film certainly reflects the challenges women face; the expectations men lay upon them to act a certain way, and the double standards still widely applied to women across the world. This film may have been made in the ’80s, but not much has changed in that sense.
Betty and Zorg begin to settle down in the new town in which they live. They have a huge house to look after, little money, but things are looking up. This whole place has such a warm feeling; a picturesque French town always bathed in sunshine, quiet streets, and friendly locals. I doubt anyone watching doesn’t dream of being plucked away from real life to live in that little piece of heaven for a while. But it isn’t enough for Betty. Even with this fresh start, a beautiful home and employment gifted to them, Zorg’s book still isn’t being published, and she cannot rest.
Zorg: “The dairyman next door is an albino…and a redhead. A redhead albino in a white coat, with a bottle of milk in each hand. Can you imagine that?”
Betty: “It would give me the creeps”.
Zorg: “It would give you the creeps. That’s exactly how I felt”.
Betty: “Albino weirdo”.
Every time Betty wears red, she is volatile. Disappointed in his lack of commitment to writing, the couple argues, then give each other the cold shoulder until eventually, Zorg loses his patience with her. Betty’s answer to criticism is to punch through a glass door pane. With blood streaming from her hand, Zorg tries to calm her down, as always by using violence—slapping her face, as if that is going to help. He cannot control her, so he uses force as all weak men do.
Betty runs. She runs all the way through the town in her underwear, with Zorg close behind. Betty reaches the top of the steps to the local church where Zorg catches up to her: she vomits. The police arrive, and rather than protect Betty; the senior officer decides that everything is A-okay. To anyone stumbling across this scene, this appears to be a man attacking a woman in her underwear in a church doorway. The police witnessed him hitting her and her trying to escape. His shoes are covered in her blood. The officers don’t ask her a single question—they only speak to Zorg, whose story the officer believes without question. The police even give them a lift back home—which could easily have been a dangerous place for Betty to return to. The implications here are startling. Betty is at her most vulnerable; barely dressed with three men, exhausted and badly hurt. All these moments of misogynistic unfairness are breaking the girl, and nobody really cares.
Things return to normal once again, and now they befriend the ‘weirdo albino’ dairyman, Bob, and his wife. Annie has recently given birth and takes a fancy to Zorg. She makes him feel her milk-engorged breast while her baby suckles on the other, then later she stuffs his face in her crotch and desperately asks him to eat her pussy. Zorg pushes her away but comforts her as she complains that her husband hasn’t wanted to have sex since she had the baby, a month earlier. It’s such a strange scene, played for comic effect, but it just feels so dysfunctional; like a white male fantasy — gorgeous ‘milf’, desperate for sex, and a good mother to boot. Bob, however, is put off by her over-zealous behaviour, and so, for once, the gender roles are swapped. It’s the man’s sanity which is called into question—how could he not want to have sex right? While this section of the film doesn’t sit right for me, (it feels like it should be in a Carry On film), it does show new angles to both Zorg and Betty’s characters.
Betty, it turns out, has a natural way with children. When we see her playing or chatting with their friend’s kids, she sparkles as if she finally found the role that was made for her—motherhood. Soon after she discovers she is pregnant and she is overjoyed. Zorg is terrified but happy.
A whole new world of possibility opens up for Betty. Being a mum is something she could put her all into; to have someone to love, care for and believe in. When you want this, there is no stronger need in the world. Not every woman gets this urge of course, and nor should they be expected to, but for those that do, it can be overwhelming. It took me exactly five years to get pregnant. I can’t even tell you just how distressing every month you aren’t pregnant becomes—it is a rollercoaster of hope, then disappointment. It becomes an obsession; every thought, every plan, every meal, every glass of wine is ruled by ‘what if’s.’ It certainly became ‘the thing’ for me, and it just sat there, growling, like a big black dog in the corner. Those five years I call the dark ages.
Zorg arrives home from work one day to find two babygro’s he’d bought shredded up and Betty missing. A letter from the Doctors reads that Betty is not pregnant after all. He looks everywhere but can’t find her. At night he returns home and finds her sitting at the table, her face covered in red lipstick and black mascara, her hair torn out in clumps. It is a powerful moment as Zorg sits opposite her, horrified at first at what she has done to herself. In unified and silent grief, he takes handfuls of tomato pasta from the dish set for him and smears it over his face.
Zorg tries to console Betty, but there’s something so very off about the way he does this. Throughout the entire film, whenever he attempts to console her, he fondles her breasts or tries to kiss her passionately. This isn’t comforting for her; it is a comfort for him. It is what he needs to feel better, and it doesn’t even cross his mind that the last thing she wants in a moment of grief is to be intimately touched. It’s no coincidence that Betty ruins her face and hair during her breakdown—she just wanted to be taken seriously for once. She didn’t want to be put right back in the box of sex object, having been treated with more respect with ‘baby on board’ only hours earlier. In her lowest moment, the title of ‘mother’ was stripped away from her, leaving her hollow.
Zorg helps cut her hair into shape, now becoming almost a father figure to her, seemingly in denial of how mentally unwell Betty has become. She begins hearing voices and spends hours staring at the stars. The loss of hope, a loss of something she never had, and the constant pressure of having to live up to men’s expectations pushed her over the edge. It is hard to say why Zorg didn’t get Betty Blue the help she needed. Possibly because he was in denial, maybe selfishly not wanting to lose her. Whatever the case, it set her on the path to tragedy.
Betty spots a little boy alone at a fairground looking for his mother, and she takes him. She only wants to play and takes him to a toy store. He is not harmed in any way, but the fact that she thought this was appropriate should have been the final straw for Zorg and he should have got her medical help. Instead, he helps her escape the authorities. She grins as she flees—this will be the last time Zorg sees her smile. A white cat starts visiting their home. It cuddles up to Betty, who is vacant now—all the vibrancy she once had is gone.
Zorg wants to save her but goes about it in all the wrong ways. He puts on one of Betty’s red dresses, her makeup, a brunette wig and gives himself curves. Exuding the confidence of the Betty he once knew, he robs a security company. He binds a horny young male guard, who immediately falls in lust with Zorg as ‘Josephine.’ The other three male guards talk to him like shit, make vulgar comments as they think he is a woman. Zorg shoots one of them in the foot as revenge. This is what Betty would have done—he takes on the persona of Betty to get what they need to survive. He finds strength in the disguise of being something he’s not and at that point, understands that dressing sexily is actually a suit of armour, and painting a pretty face is a shield. Zorg experiences what women go through day in day out; the objectification, the disrespect, the belittling. Yet he is more powerful as a woman because he has to be. He has to stare danger in the face, be aware of himself at all times, and pretend it doesn’t hurt—he knows now what it feels like walking in her heels.
While left alone one day, Betty gouges her eye out. It is a bloodbath. This act of extreme self-harm is the point she finally gets help. But it’s too late for her. She’s in shock and will probably never recover.
Ironically now is the time that Zorg gets his break. A publisher calls and offers him a book deal. He races to Betty’s hospital bed to tell her the wonderful news. It doesn’t fix her; nothing will. Her work has been done though, her belief in him changed his life. He realises that he has to repay the favour, and the only way to do that is to end her suffering. She was just 20 years old, her mind lost, an eye missing. Dressed in Betty’s clothing again, he straps her to the hospital bed and smothers her with a pillow. He has to be Betty to do it; he gives her power back to her by taking her life. If he’d been himself, he would have been doing it for himself, and for once this was a selfless act. Her spirit was already gone; her body needed to give up the ghost.
“we were meant for each other, no one can ever separate us, no one, ever!”
Betty Blue is a tragic story; it was always going to be. From the beginning, the symbolism told us how this was going to go: The pot boiling over, the crazed carousel music, the weapons she used against other people—a fork, a comb—they had teeth, and they would come back to bite her. The painting of the shacks in baby blue and powder pink that were always going to burn her. 37°2 may have been the heat of the morning, the heat of the passion between Betty and Zorg and the heat of Betty’s temper, but it is also the heat of a woman’s body when pregnant.
Whether there was ever any intention on the part of Jean-Jacques Beineix to make a film about the struggles that women face every day I cannot answer, but he achieved this in the most colourful of ways. Betty Blue ultimately examines a problematic relationship between women’s perceived and experienced madness, demonstrating that style and substance can be inextricably bound—but it shouldn’t be. How Betty dressed, her sexual confidence and no-nonsense attitude did not make her crazy, it was how she was treated because she dared to be herself that drove her over the edge.
The world wasn’t ready for Betty, and for that, she will always be a heroine in my eyes. She stood up to the unfairness of the male-dominated world, broke down the double standards that women face day in day out—she was a storm, a hurricane, and even though Betty died in battle, she taught me how to survive.
Betty Blue, The Directors Cut is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.