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November 07, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Does an artist ever recognize his muse? And if he does, can he live with her, love her, forgive her for having more faith in his work than he's ever had?

That's one of the cries from the heart of "Betty Blue" (Royal Theater), the third and most astonishing of the films of Jean-Jacques Beineix, which combines the technique and control of "Diva," his celebrated first film, with a passion that is all its own.

Betty Blue is a pretty unlikely muse, a free spirit open to almost any adventure. As she totes her suitcases to the beach cottage where Zorg, her lover of a week, is the handyman, her little apron dress reveals a heart-shaped bottom and a shattering bosom. A muse as drawn by Picasso perhaps, impudent, full-lipped, infinitely delectable, down to the little whorls of hair under her arms, a pure Picasso touch.

As Betty moves in with him, Zorg has nothing more on his mind than tending to the fire that rages between them. At 30, roughly 10 years older than she, he's taking a break from life's complications. He has a scruffy cottage on the beach in exchange for unstrenuous odd jobs. A gas stove for his chili. An unsurpassed collection of pink-and-orange sunsets. And Betty Blue, rollin' in her sweet baby's arms.

The two share a full-bodied lust for each other that Beineix wants us to get comfortable with, as comfortable as with the movie's unblinking nudity. (It's the attitude of a painter or a sculptor.) He can even make a joke of it, making us accomplices in the film's first shot, which inches us closer and closer to this absorbed couple, sweatily entwined on Zorg's bed, and finishes with Zorg's voice-over comment: "I had known Betty for a week."

The whoop of laughter that unfailingly comes from an audience on that line puts us just where Beineix wants us to be, relaxed and in the narrator's corner. The fact that these two actors, Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade, are new to us is a help; totally at ease with their bodies, they become clothed in their characters. Beineix uses nudity non-exploitatively, simply to complete our understanding of the way these two people live and love each other.

Zorg might have kept that miserable beach job for months--or years--without Betty. But, under highly overwrought circumstances (her specialty), she stumbles on a carton full of big black notebooks: a novel he had once written. She reads until dawn and instantly Betty has a cause in life--to see that this phenomenal writer comes to the attention of a waiting public.

Can Zorg write? It's irrelevant to Beineix, who adapted his film from Philippe Djian's novel "37.2 Le Matin" (the temperature at which a woman can conceive). What matters is that Betty believes he can. And that her unshakable belief in him brings him back from his sabbatical from life.

Beineix is still the sumptuous stylist; it's as much a part of him as his skin and the film has its share of gorgeous dawns, haunting sunsets, rollicking pink-and blue-painted beach houses. But he is also a great storyteller, and the whole middle section of "Betty Blue" (Times-rated: Mature for nudity, sexual situations) is an irresistible tale of crazy love on one hand and crazy friendship on the other.

In Paris, Zorg and Betty become a foursome with Lisa (Consuelo de Haviland), a young widowed friend of Betty's, and Lisa's expansive, sentimental madman of a boyfriend, Eddy (Gerard Darmon), whose Italian restaurant keeps them all afloat.

The moments they share come only once in the constellation of a friendship and are never forgotten: Eddy, in a blue silk shortie robe, jitterbugging as he cooks for them all; Lisa and Betty's vigil at the mailbox for word from publishers; a goofy vignette with a highway cop sentimental about motherhood.

Beineix drops his hints about Betty gently. Since she's hyper-emotional to begin with, it's hard to pick out the moment at which life begins to fray for her. A lot of it has to do with her unexpected pregnancy, a state she cherishes. Irreversibly, she begins to slip away from the anguished Zorg. (Watching the film a second time makes it clear how subtly Dalle and Beineix modulate her descent into the film's final section.)

Beineix draws no morals. He may suggest, in that maddeningly debatable last scene with Zorg and the white cat, the persistence of personality. Or he may not. You could make arguments for any number of interpretations, and Beineix himself has not elaborated on it.

Dalle and Anglade (perhaps especially Anglade) give stunningly fine and cauterizing performances; they fuse into a modern definition of crazy love. Crazy, yes, besotted, yes, and certainly tragic. But in some ways their obsessiveness is more bearable than the timorous, noncommittal, declines-to-state young lovers on display right now in books and plays and films and life.

'BETTY BLUE' An Alive Films release of a Gaumont presentation. Producers Claudie Ossard, Jean-Jacques Beineix. Director Beineix. Camera Jean-Francois Robin. Screenplay Beineix, based on the book "37.2 Le Matin" by Philippe Djian. Music composed, conducted by Gabriel Yared. Sound Pierre Befve. Art director Carlos Conti. Costumes Elisabeth Tavernier. Editor Monique Prim. With Jean-Hugues Anglade, Beatrice Dalle, Gerard Darmon, Consuelo de Haviland.

Running time: 2 hours.

Times-rated: Mature (nudity, sexual situations).

1 line of 28p

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