The 1992 movie adaptation by Claude Chabrol [1930-2010] of Georges Simenon’s 1961 mysterious (but not detective) novel Betty reminds me of some of the aspects of French culture and cinema that I like and some that I don’t like.
Paramount in my dislike column is the ubiquity of cigarettes: the title character chainsmokes. Something I alternate between admiring and being appalled by is the extent to which families make decisions about intimate relationships (and this is very much central to the movie).
Among the aspects that I like is the matter-of-factness about older women not only having sex but being desirable. Here, Chabrol’s wife of many years and star of many of his movies (especially notably in “Les biches” and “Le boucher”), Stéphane Audran, who was 60 at the time, is sexually active without this being the focus (the problematic even) as it is with Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give” (which prompted at least some to express repulsion at the very idea of a sex scene for a woman of her age).
This is not to say that the French are “casual” about sex. The title character, who would be diagnosed in American culture du jour as suffering from “low self-esteem” fucks around in part trying to feel something (anything) and, it becomes clear, was courting danger/disgrace (ultimately successfully) when she was suffocating in a gilded cage, after serving her purpose of birthing babies (who were then put in charge of a very efficient nanny). That is, Betty’s sexuality is not healthily integrated into her life.
As for French cinema, I like that not every “i” is dotted, every “t” crossed…. but sometimes wish that a few more were. The viewer (and/or) Simenon reader) has to do some work to put together the story of this woman in white who is first seen careening through the streets of Paris, going into a bar, and is then taken to a Versailles bar and restaurant called “Le Trou” (the hole) by a physician who picked her up and who turns increasingly creepy (and needle-wielding, which has a special power to creep me out!).
Over the course of the movie, the woman in white, Betty (Marie Trintignant), tells a rich widow—who is a regular customer at Le Trou Laure (Stéphane Audran) and who is sexually involved with the proprietor, Mario (Jean-François Garreaud)—the story of her life (the early parts of which were hard, the more recent parts too easy) and the story of what happened earlier on the night she fled into the street. That is, there is a “plot” but it is what led up to the present (as, say, the flashbacks of “Sunset Boulevard” lead up to the body seen floating in the pool at the outset).
As in such a New Wave classic as “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” there is a somewhat oddly matched pair of adults with flashbacks (some of them narrated to the other person, some memories internal to the consciousness of the younger woman). These flashbacks and reminiscences show how the young(er) French woman got to where she is (psychically, not geographically). More of Marie Trintignant is displayed (it seems to me casually; others can rule on the prurience) than Emmanuelle Riva’s body was in “Hiroshima” (in which the sex scenes mostly focused on the back of Okada Eiji). The flashbacks are not in chronological order, and some scenes flash back more than once. In that the viewer knows nothing of this past at the start of the movie, any filling in constitutes “plot spoiling” (even though neither Simenon nor Chabrol was focused on plot in either version of Betty).
By the end, the viewer (at least this one) has some understanding of Betty and has seen formative experiences (I would not call them “highlights,” some of them are quite unappetizing). The viewer (at least this one) is left wondering why Laure took such an interest in Betty and undertook salvaging the chicly dressed but mangy and quite possibly rabid dog (b____ and lush) Betty. (Similarly, the viewer must puzzle out the motivations of the never-named Japanese man in “Hiroshima” almost no help from the film-makers.)
I don’t like the ending or the coda, though I have to admit that they make sense. Also, knowing that Mlle. Trintignant, in real life, was beaten to death by her boyfriend (Bertrand Cantat) in a hotel room (in Vilnius in 2003) casts a dark shadow back on her prolonged residence in a (Versailles-Trianon) hotel room in this movie (intertextuality in a very unpleasant sense).
(Chabrol directing Trintignant)
Although there is high contrast between the nightmarish night-time scenes and the chic Versailles hotel interiors, there is no particularly arty framing or lighting from cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann (whose previous work that most impressed me was in “Molière” way back in 1978, though I also liked the lush rural images in “Olivier, Olivier” and in “Angels and Insects,” even if I found the last movie sleep-inducing). also shot “L’enfer” (1994) “La Cérémonie” (1995) for Chabrol, whose recent movies seem less interesting but no less craftsmanlike than his perverse masterpieces of the late-1960s and early-1970s (mostly with Audran (they divorced in 1980 and Audran married Marie Trintignant’s father, Jean-Louis—more offscreen intertextuality! Plus the contrast between her ready nudity and his turning down “Last Tango in Paris” because he did not want to do its nudity…).
The title comes from a review of the movie by John Simon.
©2005, 2019, Stephen O. Murray