Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1986 Oscar-nominated film Betty Blue opens with one of the most realistic and beautiful sex scenes in cinema. It’s beautiful because of the perfect physiques of the two leads, Jean-Hugues Anglade as Zorg and Béatrice Dalle as Betty, but also because of the evident tenderness that exists between these people, between them and the camera. Beineix’s taste for the explicit thankfully doesn’t stem from a perverse desire to look and to shock, but rather from an honest interest and respect for sex. For Beineix, sensuality is to be taken seriously, as a way for people to connect and reveal themselves to each other in ways that words do not allow.
This long scene shows the utter abandonment of both characters in each other, not simply in sex but in life. Zorg and Betty are a team and they will stay together. Yet this passion will also make their journey bumpy. Their relationship is one of the most vivid in cinema precisely because it is utterly fulfilling for both parties, but also because it remains constantly on the brink of destruction.
With her emotional instability and fits of rage and violence, it would be easy to see Betty as the cause for the perpetual threat to the characters’ happiness, to see her as a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the vein of Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004). But Beineix, working from a novel by Philippe Djian gives Betty more depth; Djian is incidentally also the author of the novel Oh…, most recently adapted by Paul Verhoeven into the critically acclaimed movie Elle, a film similarly attuned to femininity. Betty’s complexity here, unlike Portman’s character, is not introduced to make the story more unpredictable and exciting, but rather stems from her real feelings and personality. Betty is exuberant, but that’s because she has ideals and a strong will, traits which make her hard to live with but irresistible to Zorg. She explains that she cannot love him if she doesn’t admire him, and so she will push him to try and get his book published, even if that makes her sick.
In the end, though Zorg adores Betty, she might possibly love him even more. Unlike the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she glorifies more than she is glorified, and that gives her the agency that is usually denied women in cinema. The reversal of the gendered roles of passive and active lovers is eventually made explicit when Zorg, to try and help them both survive, dresses up as a woman to steal some money.
This crazy, or perhaps manic decision by Zorg proves that “the world is too small for her,” too small because of the material limitations of money. Betty’s thirst for freedom and refusal to compromise in order to fit into society recalls Lady Chatterley’s desperate search for the human touch, as well as her lover’s contempt for the Industrial age. This determination to stay truly alive is what keeps driving Zorg and Betty away from the numerous stunningly beautiful places they occupy.
Thanks to the masterful cinematography and set design – this film is made to be seen on the biggest of screens – Beineix turns locations into materialisations of that very contradiction that exists between complete, unabashed happiness and unavoidable dissatisfaction with reality. The bungalows expanding until infinity on the beach at the beginning of the film are at once devoid of life, requiring Zorg and Betty to work intensely to earn their right to live there and become the place of their intense, unbridled passion. The little piano shop seen later is sinister and rarely visited, but offers them a cosy space in which to dream of a future together.
Ultimately, though no place is good enough to accommodate their love, these characters will have lived life to the fullest, avoiding most compromises and remaining in love until the end.
The film screens at Picturehouse Central on Friday 25 November at 10.oopm. Book tickets.