Jean-Jacques Beineix helmed two art house crossover smashes in the ’80s, first with Diva and second with Betty Blue (37°2 le matin), which earned on Oscar nomination for best foreign film. A lush, passionate and unpretentious tale of love and madness, Betty Blue stars Jean-Hugues Anglade as Zorg, a handyman with latent aspirations of becoming a writer, and Beatrice Dalle as Betty, his impulsive and charming lover.
Beineix’s three-hour plus director’s cut is almost unquestionably a better film with more finely realized details and a less abrupt final act, but Cinema Libre has elected to put the theatrical cut, which runs about two hours, out on Blu-ray. The studio released a DVD of the extended cut about a year and a half ago. For several reasons, that release is the far better option, but we’ll get to those in a bit.
Betty Blue is notorious for its unbridled, unblinking sex scenes, which the film wastes no time in getting to — opening with an extended overhead shot of the two lovers in the throes of passion. The in medias res introduction mirrors the relationship of the characters, where background details are unimportant and the passion of the moment is all that matters.
Zorg is an earthy, simple man, painting beachfront houses for a living, but he gets caught up in the ethereal allure of Betty, whose toothy grin and smoldering eyes are understandably irresistible. It’s not too surprising that they mask a wholly unstable personality brewing underneath. When Betty discovers a handwritten manuscript of Zorg’s, she obsessively types the whole thing in seemingly one sitting before mailing it out to publishers, convinced of its genius.
Her instability is broached casually throughout the film, but Zorg doesn’t really get a taste for it until her condition abruptly shifts from adorably volatile to self-harming levels of danger.
Beineix doesn’t seem to have a handle on whether Betty and Zorg’s relationship is tragically doomed l’amour fou or a more foundationally unhealthy bond, but his unhurried, simple direction — aided by a number of beautiful long take dolly shots — and his expressive use of color make for a film as captivating as the visage of Dalle herself.
The Blu-ray Disc
Betty Blue is presented in 1080i high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. First the good news — image clarity and color definition offer a marked improvement over the previous DVD release. The film’s bright hues — especially the pink and blue coats of paint the beach houses get and the yellow Mercedes Zorg buys later in the film — are magnificent and pop off the screen. Also, the transfer is almost damage-free, with only minor scratches and flecks visible.
Here’s the problem — Betty Blue no longer looks like it was shot on film. Excessive DNR seems to have wiped away any trace of film grain, with figures now looking waxy and not lifelike. What’s even weirder is the film appears to be running at a faster frame rate, which gives it the appearance of some television shows, not film. All online synopses of the film I found list its running time at 120 minutes, while this disc clocks in at just over 116, seemingly confirming the faster frame rate. I have no idea why this was done, but it’s jarring and it bothered me the entire run time. Shimmering is also present in some moving objects, as is somewhat persistent haloing. Close-ups reveal a solid amount of fine detail, but things tend to get a little fuzzy in long shots.
Making matters worse is the audio track, presented here in lossy 2.0 stereo. It sounds fine, with dialogue clean and clear, but Gabriel Yared’s score can come across a little tinny, and clearly yearns for high definition sound. The yellow subtitles have an unacceptable amount of typos and broken HTML formatting rears its head more than once.
The single extra is a solid one — a nearly one-hour interview with Beineix in English, conducted by Tim Rhys of MovieMaker Magazine. A shorter version of this interview appeared on Cinema Libre’s DVD of the film (and if I’m not mistaken, the whole thing was parceled out into sections on all of the studio’s Beineix DVDs).
The Bottom Line
The fact that this release presents an inferior version of the film is the least of its problems. Even though Cinema Libre’s director’s cut DVD has just an average transfer with plenty of scratching, at least it looks like film. This release is one to avoid.