In 1981, a new French New Wave was heralded with Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Diva,” which was such a success in the United States that it changed the way foreign films were distributed there. No longer the province of the independently run art house, the market became fair game for all comers. But they were still relatively small operations that catered to a cinema-literate crowd, When the big box office receipts of “Diva” made everybody want to get in on the action, the chains started building multi-plexes for a new demographic that was determined more by education and income levels than enthusiasm for film culture.
Beineix’s next film, 1983’s “Moon in the Gutter” opened wide in chain theatres and was a complete flop. Maybe it was the Reagan era that had strangled the verve out of the new decade, or perhaps it was simply that the film had opened in the wrong theatres. For whatever reasons, it disappeared after a short run and has rarely been screened since.
Things went a little better for Beineix in 1986, with his two hour cut of “Betty Blue,” its promises of frontal nudity and graphic sex luring in the audience that had stayed away from the more chaste pleasures of “Moon in the Gutter.” It was no blockbuster, though, and the director’s subsequent films received scant US distribution.
In 1992, a three-hour cut of “Betty Blue” received a limited theatrical re-release and, in 2004, made its way to DVD. It received a full theatrical US release in 2009.
“Betty Blue” is a love story that goes beyond the surrealist ideal of “mad love” to explore, not simply the madness of love, but the love of the mad, and subsequently, the relationship between eroticism and hysteria. With the freedom to be so candid in its depiction of sexual acts, Beineix was able to include a dimension of cinema’s “femme fatale” that, while crucial to the archetype, has been toned down in most films.
One example of this is Tuesday Weld in “Pretty Poison.” It is her sexuality that binds Anthony Perkins to her, and encourages the flowering of his own delusions, yet that sexuality is only expressed in coded terms. We never see explicitly how her madness finds physical expression though her sexuality. In “Betty Blue,” the sexuality of a female character is explicitly integrated into her primary characteristics.
“Betty Blue” is a story about how people love each other, not only physically, but morally, intellectually, and spiritually. It is also a critique of a society that penalizes lovers. In a world in which one’s livelihood depends on being polite to some jerk, Betty refuses to allow anybody to treat the man she loves with contempt. The price for such insubordination is the loss of individual freedoms which ultimately threatens the right to life itself.