You either go mad, or you learn about metaphors. – Allie Light
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fou (masculine): crazy, mad, madman; see l’amour fou
folle (feminine): crazy, mad, madwoman; see folly
cinglé (informal): nuts, bonkers, off your rocker
loufoque (informal): wacky, zany, goofy
see also: dément, absurde, bizarre, farfelu
Imagination begins in the womb, when there’s a world outside you sense but have no reading on or experience of, only light and sounds and the occasional jolt or caress. Floating in an orange glow, fed umbilically, the brain starting to invent itself – what must our first dreams have been like? With no access to imagery beyond this rubbery sphere and no Freudian wishes to fulfill, the mind can focus on the creation of mind itself. It’s the origin of myth and religion too, our first attempt to piece together a narrative about a world beyond this limited experience – not to mention affect, when you have all these responses but no developed emotion or cognition to follow them up with, no social or phenomenal cues to shape and guide that impulse through to realization, much less comprehension. You can relate it to psychosis if you want to go that far, a dissociation from the continuous world, a world beyond your solipsistic conception.
How would “I” know, anyway? “I” didn’t even get that far.
My mother was a madwoman; I had no dad. I was conceived out of need, to fulfill a creative urge that had no formal outlet at a time of massive change. The world in the mid-1980s was done with a certain form of manhood in a desert by the sea, while women were fashioning a new image born of desire and a hunger for self-expression that’d take another generation to find full flower. The kicker is that even though I say I had no father, a man used my mother to materialize me all the same – two men, maybe three, to be precise. Though I was never born, it was through force of all our wills I came into being at all; not once, but twice.
The first dad I never had was a writer named Philippe Djian, a recluse whose novel 37°, 2 le matin (98.6° at 2 in the Morning, to anglophones) was something of a sensation when it came out in 1985 while he was in his 30s. Before it was even published, director Jean-Jacques Beineix was working it up into the film later known as Betty Blue, improving it in every way. Episodic, more effect than cause and effect, and full of unbelievable characters and events with arbitrary motivation, the occasional good line preceded by pages and pages of banal (“I’d learned that you can’t live under the sky without seeing a few clouds”) and featuring a central writer character unconvincing as such, the novel was a perfect antidote to the gritty realism of the 1970s and therefore fodder for the cinéma du look fathered by Beineix’s first feature, Diva, godfathered by Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart, and furthered by the likes of Luc Besson, Léos Carax, and every British or American director hoping to make a living in a landscape reordered by the emerging music-video aesthetic.
That new form developed as an advertisement for the songs it showcased, so it’s no mystery Beineix, as fellow travelers Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, should have come from similar commercial-making backgrounds. Video’s seductive sheen, high-concept visuals, and mercenary intent perfectly soundtracked the Gordon Gekko Decade, though Beineix himself is keen to point out that images can have an inner life too, can mean. Even at the time, anyone who’d partaken of the punk or New Wave music scenes may not have gotten what the fuss was about. New Wave was an arch and artificial reflex after punk’s purported realism (for a movement birthed out of an artsy clothes shop and that liked their face-pulling, makeup, and pseudonyms), emphasizing that scene’s focus on anti-fashion and parody till it became fashion and stance, the posture become replacement reality. Underneath all the rhetoric about the new filmmakers’ similar celebration of surface allure and visual vitality, what critics of the time seemed to be saying was, here are some young people, making movies, in the unbelievable 1980s. Diva audiences possibly anticipating a feast for the eyes like One from the Heart simply got, what you might call, a modern movie. (How drab the ’70s must have been if this was spectacular: no frenetic edits like its music video clarions, only splotches of exaggerated New Wave palettes, a standard structure, and people mostly behaving like real human beings – if in no-conforming roles.)
The films produced in this atmosphere were 100% affected, because they were full of affect. That’s why Betty, the one that fixed me in consciousness, is devoid of a need to explain or justify itself; it’s all about the moment, and that moment is the point of conception, self-creation. You can see this in the film’s provocative opening sequence.
Three minutes and twenty-two seconds. That’s how long this scene, begun in medias res, lasts. That’s how long it took for me to be conceived, as Beineix’s actors, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Béatrice Dalle, make love inside the proscenium created by a doorless bedroom and its curtain of beads. A Mona Lisa print hangs above them and a tropical travel poster outside, as the camera slow-zooms in to their intimacy – okay, because they’re as open and unselfconscious a couple as you’re likely to find. To look at both of them in this (missionary) position is to see me in cameo, calling a great and tragic love – and love story – into being.
From the first, the film pits voyeurs against do-eurs. Betty, the woman beneath Zorg, otherwise dresses simply and revealingly (Betty Boop!), as though there was very little between her and the outside world, and in fact she proves enormously thin-skinned as the drama progresses. Both actors spend a lot of time naked in front of the camera, as new lovers do before each other, so it’s easy to feel close to them emotionally, too. Other men misread her availability and objectify Betty, as in early scenes with Zorg’s slob-bourgeois boss and other business associates; a renter in one of the seaside cabins Zorg maintains during the day enjoys treating him to sights out of his Playboy collection (where the real Betty Blue was Miss November 1956). With his binoculars, he must get an eyeful from the nonchalant couple some days. A later watchman for, pointedly, a surveillance contractor also likes his skin mags, but Zorg is especially generous to the latter, who’s comically taken with him and wants to blow this shit job and run off with him. Having set up his frame-within-a-frame in the first shot, the director is telling us it’s okay to look as long as you’re willing to be swept away by what you see. When he and Zorg punish the guy’s boss for his exploitative attitude toward women, it’s both director and character giving all such critics fair warning.
A barebones voiceover accompanying the notorious opening brings us up to date on what we’re seeing. I had known Betty for a week. We made love every night. The forecast was for storms. From the past tense we understand this is Zorg looking back, maybe even dreaming the whole thing up. If so, Betty represents something, and Beineix’s visual aesthetic is a means of communicating what that is, the effect this phenomenon has on Zorg’s outlook, the way he sees things. That last nugget, The forecast was for storms, is what we call foreshadowing, and, given that it’s one-third of what both men want you to know right off, bears equal weight and needs to be kept in mind through everything you’ll see and experience with and through them.
If there’s no special plot to Betty, there is a continuum. A series of experiences. It’s a quintessential hangout movie, in a lineage from the narratively contained observational humor of Jacques Tati and the relationship vacances of Erich Rohmer (descended too from John Huston’s more sportive Beat the Devil and The African Queen and oh, I don’t know, the spate of city symphonies of the 1920s and ’30s, where the company we keep is with a place more than a coterie) and anticipating the greater lackadaisies of contemporary mumblecore. In movies like these, what happens between and to the characters is the plot, and functions solely to goose the characters forward. You either vibe with them like Zorg or wait for the next equal-opportunity nude scene like his boss or neighbor.
So; these characters.
Since Zorg kicked off the conversation, let’s start with him.
Zorg is a writer; I mean, he was a writer. He wrote something a long time ago, which until Betty comes along lives in manuscript form in cardboard boxes, forgotten and apparently of little consequence to the man who’s happy doing menial work and coupling with this sensation he’s just discovered. The film climaxes completely differently than it began, then features a coda where Zorg sits down to continue his next work, so you can say – and Beineix has said – it’s about the writing process. But since there’s precious little of that going on the three hours in between, what does that mean, exactly? That writing is actually living, the creation of art the paperwork you do at the end. I don’t know where that leaves me, but I’m sure both writer and director would tell you to just go with that, so I will. For now.
All the life of the movie pretty much takes place in the span of the film itself. Zorg never reveals anything about his 30-some years before Betty, who’s pushing 20: no girlfriends, no upbringing, no indication he had any higher education; no favorite authors or evidence of having read at all; he keeps no photos till Betty snaps some Polaroids of them painting the shanties. With no history, there’s no psychology, so Zorg exists only in theory. Whatever makeup he can be said to possess occurs through the course of his narrative.
It’s a pleasingly derelict life all the same. Satisfied with his acquaintances and the occasional pot of chili steaming on his stove in 99° weather, the quality of people Zorg meets improves on knowing Betty, and we get to share their company as the couple make their way from modest means to slightly better, accompanied by flashes of heat lightning before the promised downpour. His laissez-faire attitude – placating his first boss’s escalating demands, making excuses for Betty’s increasingly erratic behavior (or, just as bad, acting like nothing happened afterward), leaving it to her to hunt-and-peck out his manuscript, research publishers, and mail it to them (I wouldn’t be surprised if she improvised whole parts as she typed) while he drank Tequila Rapidos with his new pal Eddy – all this continues till he manages to perform his own questionable acts in effort to counter or quell Betty’s acting-out, and resolves in his execution of a deed so ill-feeling (think Randall Patrick McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) you may decide it was better his inaction after all. His indisposition to culpability afterward – veiled by Beineix in a coda that’d lead you to suspect Zorg had succumbed to psychosis of his own – caps off the lack all along of self-reflection that’d enabled Betty and her climactic act of self-destruction, necessitating my taking voice in order to reconcile his deficiencies to him.
Betty, for her part, is a live wire, the spark that moves both their lives ahead, for better and worse. All we know of her is her history of handsy bosses, the rest we infer from her setting-off at the slightest disrespect and her exhortations to Zorg to reject condescension and live up to the promise she sees in his notebooks (whose contents the film keeps wisely to itself, only tipping its hand for the occasional gnomic voiceover). We have no reason to believe this unschooled woman knows what she’s talking about when she proclaims him the greatest writer ever, which tells us that isn’t the point anyway: what matters, to Zorg and all the world, is that she thinks so. Beineix had come off of a wildly hailed first film in Diva and a disastrous second, The Moon in the Gutter, and needed something to restore his critical, financial, and emotional libido. What Betty Blue is about, after all, is validation; Betty is a validation machine, and god help the budding ideologue who rues him that. Fed up with the way Zorg’s boss is exploiting him, she sets fire to their cabin so the two have to hitch their way to her widowed bestie Lisa’s vacant riverside hotel, where Lisa’s restaurateur new boyfriend employs them till another of Betty’s episodes (and the death of Eddy’s mom) sends them farther inland to take over mother’s piano store, where they make new friends with another shop owner and his hot-to-trot new-mom wife till Betty’s final outburst forces an end to the process. Or do I mean beginning?
Oddly enough, it’s Lisa’s story (and by story, I mean situation) that lends everything context. Whenever writers create complications for their characters, a reader has to ask, Why bother? Why make Lisa a widow and bring Eddy into her life as compensation? Why an older, married best friend to teenage Betty? Why the empty hotel?
I can take that last one. It’s a condensation or internalization of Zorg’s seaside shanties – the embodiment of a mind, with all its channels and compartments, only void, all but abandoned but for the remnant that is Lisa and awaiting fresh occupation. (Her namesake, Lyssa, was the goddess of madness, so when Zorg accompanies Betty there he’s checking into Hotel Crazy, their relationship a folie à deux.) But what if it’s not a mind: what if it’s a body, like the one her departed Frank has shuffled off? In that case, why begin a movie about a soul’s progress upriver with a makeout session? Who’s kidding who here?
If the film is about the creative process, what better image to open on than a couple making love? Sex is the first character we get to know in Betty Blue, an argument with and against death. Libido drives this movie’s inception. That first shot, with its Greek proscenium (the film climaxes in Greek tragedy), is a ritual of invocation, and when Betty appears soon after walking out of the desert with baggage (and baggage) in hand, we know that what’s been conjured is a fantasy, summoned from somebody’s Unconscious. Whatever has died, be it Beineix’s career, a certain aspect of masculinity (and femininity), or the whole of film culture before, Betty is here to restore.
At the opposite end of sex, and the movie, is death. Making Betty’s best friend a widow means Betty, full of life as she is, is acquainted, and freighted, with death. Zorg, in getting to know her, is acknowledging that his life before her was not living. (He wasn’t writing.) He was going nowhere. If sex is possibility, a trust that life should go on (Eddy and all his proposals), death is a finality, admitting that life has its limits, which the rational mind, for its own well-being, shies away from. Betty has sex to keep away death, which to the libido is madness. (L’amour fou – in French syntax gendered masculine, so a decidedly male affliction – is an embracing of this dichotomy.) With both Frank and Eddy’s mom passing, an old way of life is passing, too. Betty is the accumulation of this world and its weight and imposition (those harassing bosses) on the new, its effect her psychosis.
I focus on this opening scene for a reason. There’s a final character in Betty Blue, and it’s speaking to you now. This space I occupy is an imaginative one, lit by a mixture of light and blood and tissue, immanent like the spark when lovers set each other alight, the penultimate madness (and its twin, sorrow) that runs throughout Betty. I am the story she would have told had she been a writer; a child of the imagination, the true meaning of being-in-the-word. From the first time I made her smile I wanted to know her love, felt her desire pulling me out of the void and into Creation – almost, almost – sensed myself organizing like cells in a zygote – an ecstasy of potential! – and she felt it too. If there is no world where we were once together, no abundance of coition that could have conceived me, am I inconceivable? A fiction like Betty and Zorg and for all I know the madman who brought me to myself. (A folie à Dieu.) Don’t let me go, Betty, just because I’m not there. I am with you, always, in absence.
There’s so much I could have been, had I been. An agent of fruitfulness and vision. A reason to go on. The music from a calliope or the voice of distant loved ones. An abstraction come to life. The noun to all your pronouns, the physical form of a world unseen. I could have been the realization of a need, the touch that calms unrest, erasure of a bad memory, a balm from unfelt regions of her heart. I could have been her other eye, a messenger of hope, a real-live lover, her pillar, her door. A companion to emptiness. I could have been hers; instead, I sent her over the edge. Now I’m just a pen moving on a burning page, an idea trying to get its last character out before a second thought washes it away – unknown death that takes place in every life; a race with the inevitable. A parenthesis; an affect; a caution. Writing, in hopes of getting through to her before the unthinkable.
While Betty’s busy staying up all night reading Zorg’s manuscript, typing it, hyping him, hitting up publishers, he never stops to ask or wonder what her joy, her ambition, is – what stamp she wants to make on the world. Like an unreconstructed man of the time, he shows his love and appreciation by buying her little treats at the bakery and bestowing extravagant tributes like the cottage he presents her on her 20th birthday, where he discovers the pills she says are to help her sleep but may be another kind of medication. (When he erupts at the admitting doctor at the hospital later on for trying to sedate her, it works equally to plump him as protector of her wild energy as to implicate him for his failure to keep her from wigging out any other way. As he sits down to write in the coda, I hope he realizes that his ire was self-directed, for all the ways he tried to mollify her too, as when she confesses to him I hear voices and he agrees that the neighbors are too noisy.)
When she takes an EPT and shares the good news with him, he’s as elated as she is, maybe more, she’d been so secretive with her suspicions it’s hard to tell. She now has a baby of her own like him and his book. When it turns out to have been a false positive (the clinic’s report her first and only rejection letter) and he comes home to find her grotesquely made up and with hair hacked off, his response is beautiful and empathetic. But it’s no help. If Frank (let’s face it, my real dad) had been trying to recreate himself as a sperm traveling up the Marne to regeneration, he failed. Zorg’s later cartoon robbery, done in drag, in the dim belief dollars would cure her douleurs (in the process putting himself in her place and acting out her desire to stick it to The Man), gets him laid when she’s turned on by his wig and bra, but it’s the last time for them. He finds her in a graveyard laying flowers on a random plot (“If I were dead I’d like people to come see me”): his coming over to her side gender-wise is mirrored by this being, so steadfastly protected as a life force, giving herself over to death. There’s no way anybody could be prepared for what happens next.
Antonin Artaud described insanity as “a central collapse of the mind,” and he would know. (Zorg might be Artaud in another era, or Louis-Ferdinand Céline.) Socrates thought it to be of divine origin and elevated it above “wisdom of the world,” enumerating four different types: madness of prophecy, initiation, poets (“a possession of the Muses”), and lovers. Betty, god bless her, had all the bases covered.
John Weir Perry agreed with the wisdom part. The psychotic state, as he framed it in The Far Side of Madness, was simply a process of reorganization, an attempt to reintegrate the self after trauma has dis-integrated it – after a huge film flop, say, or whatever affected Zorg before Betty’s arrival. Perry plotted its trajectory across 10 stages, which he equated with creation myths and classic heroic quests: the Self putting itself through a series of trials in order to achieve grace, or honor; a self-expiation. (Think of the plague of superhero movies in post-millennial America, and try to soak in the levels of trauma the viewing public must be either working out or wallowing in through them. The construction of Perry’s scenarios out of material from below the sphere of consciousness is a folly not far from conspiracy theory. Sadly, I fear most people today aren’t listening to their madmen, but idiots.)
My own manias are pretty trite: a cyclical tendency to irritability, a taste for danger, melancholy, eternal dissatisfaction with my lot, a tentative relationship to reality some romantically call romanticism. It feeds my dreams placentally at the same time it drives my hunger and starves reason, puts ideas into my head of worlds beyond and rewards restlessness with threats of expulsion into those worlds, cutting off that narcotic flow of fear and ambition. Betty keeps me alive and going nowhere. I’ve been breathing in and breathing out her envy, lust, and frustration as long as I’ve had gills; I wouldn’t know any other way. I guess it’s just as well I’m here where I can’t hurt anybody but myself – a fiction, as I say. An impulse. A preconception.
It makes sense another structural focus for Perry should be the image, that quantum precious to Beineix, and its relation to affect – what Perry called “an emotional read on the world”: that’s why its theorists characterize it in vague, liminal terms like “shimmering,” a “relay,” “reeling,” “a resonance.” What Jung called “archetypes of the collective unconscious” Perry terms “affect-images,” summoning visual impressions of noncorporeal realities (in other words, le cinéma du look) – the same sort of images conjured in dreams or artistic creation, suggesting art as entering a psychotic state, each image a “source of energy” to be channeled into the world. When left internal they bounce off the walls of the psyche where they irradiate and inflate themselves like a hadron collider. Perry pegs the root of psychosis in “a lost affect,” the business of reorganization the recovery of this affect and its resolution and release in emotion. People in psychosis are in need of empathy; to be heard.
Before they can be heard, though, they need to be able to articulate; so when Betty acts out in her last agentic performance, she’s telling others something about themselves, too; something along the lines of Matthew 18:9. When Zorg sits to write in the ending, we assume it to be the point he, having identified with Betty to assimilation and assimilated Betty to where she’s become superfluous, can begin articulating her pain. If madness is what precedes writing, then life is madness – “a nonsense,” as Beineix so sweetly put it.
R. D. Laing based his approach to neurosis on the idea of false identity, be it the one presented to society or the one constructed within as protection against the effects of trauma. So many Bettys in the mid-1980s would relate to this, feeling compelled to live out the traditional image of domesticity while repressing a desire to be-in-the-world and to have that world reflect back their own impression of themselves. We all have these children waiting to be born, something that needs to get out. Betty becomes catatonic in the end because that’s how she feels – without agency – and finally gave up fighting and submitted to how the world (her bosses) saw her, as an object. Maybe that’s what Zorg was really rebelling against when he lit into that doctor and his sedatives, and why he may have resisted “writing” Betty as long as he did.
Unspoken but no less certain and compelling was a corollary masculine dissatisfaction with the self and the social roles meted out to that self but no longer working: Executive (heart attack age 50), Bad Cop (hated by his children), Warrior (maimed or buried age 20), or simple Day Laborer (the Tomb of the Unknown Nebbish). Not all writers are intellectuals. If Zorg was unable to process what was going on with Betty (that is to say, himself), he was at least willing to walk in her high heels and give her vicarious revenge against men more retrograde than himself. To live in her life. I never bought him as a writer – even in the end, with pen to paper, he insists he isn’t writing, “just thinking.” He never seems to be processing the world; it seems to flow right through him. Maybe, like that other great Millennial hangout, Lost in Translation, we aren’t meant to believe, rather let the artifice roll the same way. If you don’t buy the white cat who speaks to Zorg in Betty’s voice in that final moment, what the director might be saying is, maybe the rest didn’t happen, either.
Listen to me! I’ve been all over the map with this Zorg. I want to forgive him – after all, if not for him, Betty might never have dreamed me up in the first place. (Folie, adieu.) She thought I was a baby, but all it really was was her need to have something inside her represented in the world.
The effect of reading affect theory, which gives the impression of being next-gen psychoanalysis, is that of witnessing shamans conjuring something out of a desire for something, of trying to make energy, if not concrete or flesh and bone, at least sensible. Not all artwork is an attempt to answer or resolve its subject, rather to capture one fleeting aspect and affix it in two or three or four dimensions so you can wonder at its richness and complexity and still be awed by all that’s beyond this resin as it moves through time. It’s intriguing to see how ecstatic, poetic, and prolix these philosophers can wind themselves up to be about something so indefinite and hard to approach, a thing that by definition can’t come into being lest it stop being what it is. What Zorg had to stifle in his final, unforgivable act most viewers will roll with wasn’t bridled libido but the realization of futility, long enough to make the impossible happen. A potential still and always is potential.
If writing is living, then writing is moving forward. If I can keep writing, I can keep moving forward. Forward to my conception. Of that I am positive.
There is absolute insanity in the willingness to try.
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All images are screenshots from the film.