In 1989, film critic Raphaël Bassan coined the term cinéma du look. Describing a tendency in French cinema that had begun in the early eighties and would continue into the nineties, Bassan identified commonalities in the work of Jean-Jacques Beineix, Leos Carax, and Luc Besson. These directors, who usually made films without strong ideological angles (at least compared with French political cinemas of the sixties and seventies), drew more inspiration from advertising, fashion, and comic books than they did from the high cinematic arts. They privileged colorful, expressionistic imagery over psychological realism, constructing worlds that border on the fantastic, and whose aestheticization gives their films’ stories—which often focus on marginalized, adrift youths in ill-fated romantic situations—a sense of heightened emotion and fatalism.
Cited as the “first French postmodern film” by American theorist Fredric Jameson, Beineix’s 1981 feature debut, Diva, would prove to be one of the formative films of the cinéma du look, embodying the movement’s media-conscious, visually driven approach. Following a delivery boy in his obsession with a female opera singer and his simultaneous entanglement with gangsters and cops, Diva is a thriller of sorts, although it is less interested in advancing a taut narrative than in observing its characters’ behavior, or in giving itself over to sheer visual inventiveness. As Roger Ebert wrote on the film’s American release, “Here is a director taking audacious chances, doing wild and unpredictable things with his camera and actors, just to celebrate moviemaking.”
Two years later, Beineix made the less well-received drama The Moon in the Gutter, starring Gérard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski. It wasn’t until 1986, with Betty Blue, that the director fulfilled the promise of Diva’s approach to story, character, and visual extravagance. Based on 37°2 le matin—Philippe Djian’s breakout 1985 novel about a passionate affair between an aspiring writer in his thirties who ekes out a living as a handyman and the wild, impulsive nineteen-year-old Betty—Betty Blue opens with a frank sex scene, framed with precision and shot by a steady, slow-moving camera, while we hear the male protagonist, Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade), state in voice-over: “I had known Betty for a week. We made love every night. The forecast was for storms.” As it happens, Zorg will weather the storms generated by Betty (Béatrice Dalle) better than she will.
The films of the cinéma du look have often been criticized (notably by the writers of Cahiers du cinéma) for being superficial, a charge from which Betty Blue has not been exempt. When the film came out, Serge Toubiana wrote in Cahiers that it was nothing more than a series of fragmented, childish images, even if those images were pretty to look at. Beineix had a background in directing commercials, on some of which Jean-François Robin, Betty Blue’s director of photography, had collaborated. Robin would later say that the two had intentionally shot certain scenes of Betty Blue as if showcasing a product, and it’s not hard to see that approach in the film’s incredibly striking use of color, from the candy pinks and turquoises of the beach cottages Zorg and Betty paint to the lemon-yellow Mercedes he buys to the scarlet of a dress she wears.
“Despite its ups and downs, sex and violence, mayhem and tragedy, this is often a world you’d like to visit.”
“All along, Beineix and Dalle have been complicating any simplistic view of Betty as merely a sexual object, a wild fantasy, or a creative muse.”
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