37°2 le Matin | France | 1986 | Directed Jean-Jacques Beineix
Logline: A carefree handyman begins a passionate relationship with a beautiful, but emotionally volatile young woman who wants desperately for him to succeed as a writer, and to have his child.
I love this movie with an aching in my melodic heart. A celebration of love and life inexorably entwined with melancholy and tragedy, so French you can hear it crunch like a crisp baguette. A powerful love story and an inspirational study of life’s craziness that is as sweltering and fiery as the boiling pot of chilli that bookends the movie. It is the gorgeously sad tale of Zorg and Betty.
The opening scene is wonderfully famous: Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade in a career defining performance) and Betty (Béatrice Dalle, also in a career defining performance) making love sideways on his bungalow bed; she moaning in ecstasy, he rhythmically matching her grinding hips, the camera slowly edging closer until their sweaty naked bodies fill the screen. “I had only known Betty for a week. We made love every night. The forecast was for storms.” Everyone who watches wonders, were they doing it for real?
Jean-Jacques Beineix had already made the superb comedy-thriller Diva five years earlier, but his adaptation of the French best-seller 37°2 le Matin by Philippe Djian is his masterpiece. Celebrated the world over, becoming most famous under the title Betty Blue, as it was known in most countries outside of France. I love the ennui of Betty Blue, but I love the ardour of 37.2 Degrees in the Morning (which is also notable as the normal morning temperature of a pregnant woman).
First released in a heavily truncated form, but still at a dramatic length of 120 minutes, then five years later Beineix was able to release his director’s cut (Version Intégrale), which restored an hour’s footage! This was the version that was finally released on DVD. Originally leaning more toward being Betty’s story it now became a narrative about Zorg and the woman who came into his life like a hurricane of carnal joy and soulful awakening. The tonal difference between the 2-hour version and the 3-hour version is profound.
The majority of the additional scenes in the complete version delve more into Betty’s psychological fragility and breakdown (she suffers from a bipolar disorder), how this affects Zorg and how he deals with the escalating predicament, but there is also more comedy and romantic playfulness. The complete version never feels overlong, which is a marvel of screenwriting and direction on Beineix’s behalf.
Gabriel Yared’s music is sublime, at once perfectly French with accordion and carnival organ, then saxophone and harmonica that meow in the night like a lonely pussycat, and a piano melody that lilts like a sad crooner. Yared’s variations will forever remind me of a heady, impressionable period of my own life: my late teens, my first serious romance. After seeing Betty Blue I started drinking coffee from a bowl and pinned that poster of Béatrice Dalle above my first double bed.
A fantastic cast enriches the movie; from Gerard Darmon’s hilarious Eddy (and all those tequila rapidos!) to Frédéric Andréi’s cameo (playing his postman character from Diva) passing Betty on a railway bridge, and of course Jean-François Robin’s stunning cinematography provides the icing on the cake. Not forgetting more full frontal nudity and sexual shenanigans than you can shake a baguette at!
Yes, Betty Blue is a movie for naked romantics who wear their hearts on the sleeves, and a glint of mischief in their glistening eye. They don’t make them much like this anymore; adventurous and extroverted, yet sensitive and introspective, brash and funny, yet sorrowful and alone. “Are you writing?” Zorg’s white cat seems to ask him in Betty’s voice, “Just thinking,” says Zorg and returns to his manuscript as the screen fades to a blue tableaux.