By Benjamin Crossley-Marra
I first saw BETTY BLUE ten, maybe eleven years ago when a restored 35mm print of the Director’s Cut played at Cinema Village. Knowing I loved DIVA, Jean Jacques Beineix’s first feature, a good friend encouraged me to go. I thought it would be another fun, visually maximalistcaper like its predecessor. I was wrong. VERY wrong. I wasn’t remotely prepared for what I saw nor the memories it would send cascading back into my soul. Feelings and emotions I thought I had long made peace with came roaring back via a brilliant yellow convertible speeding our hero’s Betty and Zorg to their final destination. I stumbled out of the theater, walked around Manhattan for the better part of the night and didn’t go to work the next day.
When BETTY BLUE was released in the 80s much was made of thefilm’s aesthetic pyrotechnics. It was the apex of the new stylish, sexy,colorful French movement critics would later dub: Cinema du Look. When the Director’s Cut was released years later the response seemed to be more geared to how difficult Betty’s descension into madness is to absorb(that makes sense, there’s an hour more of it). Some critics even went so far as to say the film infantilizes Betty as a character over Zorg, our male protagonist and the ultimate arbiter of Betty’s fate. I won’t attempt to argue with any of that. But I will tell you a story of why I feel differently.
On my first day of High School I met Amber. She was COOL. By far the coolest person that deigned to speak to my awkward ass. We immediately agreed to eat lunch together every day and make fun of anyone that walked past. Decked out in black, Amber got into fistfights with guys, swore at teachers, smoked in the hallway, parked in the superintendent’s space and always gave cops the finger. When she wasn’t occupied with terrifying every adult in sight, she also got straight As.
In 10th grade they caught her dealing pot out of her locker and put her into the back of the squad car kicking and screaming. Throwing a fit, she kicked out both back windows before they even drove away! She was in juvenile detention for a week and suspended for the rest of the year. After that I convinced myself I was madly in love with her.
We had a lot in common: both of our fathers were unemployed and serious alcoholics, both of our mother’s consequently evaporated and both of us loved art, music and film. Most afternoons were spent getting stoned in her room listing to Ramones, The Clash and Pixies. Every now and then I would try to get her to say she was my girlfriend. “No Ben,” she’d laugh. “It’d be like dating my brother! You’re my soul mate, not my boyfriend.” This was confusing and frustrating to me as despite this, in many ways she drew me closer. I went on all her first dates to approve, she left presents in my locker every Friday and called me every night to say “goodnight.”
We arranged to go to college together. The first two years were great, it was just like High School only we were completely free. We went on hikes, trips, concerts, and did every drug we could find. We watched three films a day. We must have watched at least 3/4 of the local Blockbuster inventory. We made plans to always live together, even if we got married. But, at the end of sophomore year I fell in love with someone else. I was thrilled to be in a real relationship for the first time, obsessed with starting a career the film industry and I didn’t notice that Amber’s once strong veneer was beginning to crack.
At first it was just spending a lot of time in her room, then it was a bar fight that landed her in jail for the night, then she disappeared for three days. When she finally came back, I was furious. Why would she put me through that? Did she not care about her family and friends at all? What the fuck was she doing anyway? But she just quietly smiled, apologized and said she needed to be alone.
The summer of my senior year I was able to get an internship in New York City. I loved it so much I vowed to move there the second I graduated. Amber made me promise to call her every day. At first, I did. But then New York sank its claws into me and one day would become two days, then three, then four and for then for the first time since we met, we went a whole three weeks without talking.
When I got back for my last year of college the Amber I knew from my youth was fading. She barely went to class, stopped hanging out with her friends and her once cool, solid “fuck all” exterior melted into a grim muddy pool of paranoia. She accused friends of stealing, she accused her boyfriend of rape, her teachers were agents of evil. She didn’t graduate. Nonetheless, the summer after I graduated we arranged to move to New York City. Me for film, her to finish her undergraduate for photography. She agreed to go down first and scope out potential living arrangements. But despite this being the move of a lifetime, we were barely talking once a week.
I was shocked when I arrived. The apartment was squalid: no furniture, papers were everywhere, food was rancid, she had written on the walls and made a nest out of blankets for a bed. I freaked. I accused her of being crazy, deranged and insane. I couldn’t believe this was the woman I used to admire so much. The fight was bad. She grabbed a kitchen knife and lunged at me but when I moved out of the way she just screamed and threw it out an open window. Then she ran out into the night.
The next day I deleted her number from my phone, got a new apartment and vowed never to speak to her again. I began my new life in New York and didn’t look back. Although she attempted to reach out to meseveral times, I ignored them all.
Years later a friend called me and told me Amber left this world. I didn’t feel anything at the time…I was still too angry. But all that changed in the basement of Cinema Village, while I was watching BETTY BLUE for the first time.
I saw so much of Amber in Betty it was uncanny. Like Betty she was passionate about life, love and would fight to the death for the ones that she cared about the most. She couldn’t (and wouldn’t) be boxed in by any strictures set forth by society and therefore could find no place in it. But most of all, I wondered if like our hero Zorg, I should have been there for her at the end. Zorg did what he did out of love, I did what I did out of spite. It’s a life lesson I’m not proud to have learned this way. But only after watching this film did I realize that my treatment of someone I loved, someone who by society’s standards is “mentally ill,” wasn’t compassionate. Although incredibly disturbing, I must say Zorg’s was.
I still love watching BETTY BLUE despite all the memories it brings up. It’s an excellently made film and features an incredible performance from Béatrice Dalle, stunning cinematography by Jean-François Robin and a haunting score by Gabriel Yared. The Director’s Cut is well-worth checking out and it should be seen on the big screen in a beautiful theater like The Roxy. Maybe you won’t find any emotional connection with BETTY BLUE at all and that’s ok! But at some point, I having a sinking feeling this story is more universal than most might care to admit.