Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hey Betty Blue, Come Blow Your Mind!

Beatrice Dalle: few other women have created such affectionately crazy characters. And I don't mean affectionately crazy like rom-com Sandra Bullock tangled up in wedding dress crazy, I mean batshit tear your jugular vein out with her teeth while on top of you in bed crazy. That she can make such terrifying characters affectionate attests to her charisma and fearlessness; she's like Asia Argento's SCARLET DIVA with a mild case of rabies; she's what Courtney Love thinks she is but isn't; she's hot the way only genuine (check on Dalle's private life in the UK Telegraph) insanity can be hot; she's the hot female version of Robert Mitchum in CAPE FEAR or Brando in STREETCAR; she's berserk so you don't have to be.

She's played many roles but there's three unforgettable movies that define her screen persona:  BETTY BLUE (1986), TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001) and INSIDE (2007). Taken together they form a loose, unofficial 21 year trilogy of taboo-busting French cinema wherein our heroine evolves from troubled uninhibited full-frontal waif (BLUE) to batshit cannibal nymphomaniac (TROUBLE) to full-on female Michael Meyers / Jason unstoppable Kali womb ripper (INSIDE). BLUE kind of retro-actively launched the whole 'quirky comi-tragedy with casual nudity" French genre; TROUBLE took the always popular vampire myth to its bloody extreme end; and INSIDE fit the torture-porn mold of the late 00s, and the character threads left unresolved in BETTY BLUE got resolved through INSIDE, the way RED kind of wound up the threads of WHITE and BLUE in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy. And what a hell of a journey because, you see, this actress needs no makeup our double to be terrifying: she's got those teeth!


One thing our own Hollywood heroines never seem to have is scary teeth. This sad truth compromised the rawness of Rob Zombie's DEVIL'S REJECTS (2007) for example, with its scuzzy Manson family cannibals flashing top notch orthodontistry. In America our teeth are either perfect or godawful based on our parent's health plans or lack thereof--the have-braces and have-nots; the rich get even their minor imperfections sealed over and whitened while the poor can only watch in the mirror as their incisors and bicuspids overlap and twist sideways. In countries with socialized medicine however, such as France and England, the collapse of first rate dentistry in favor of a universal median produces a uniformity of neither very good nor horrendously bad teeth. Dalle's are definitely in this ballpark, not hideous but certainly lupine... and she is a truly brave actress and sexpot for not wanting to hide them (as say, Anna Karina and Jane Birkin used to) and for using them as a counterpoint to her stunning sexuality. Their dark crooked contours shine in all the H.R. Giger glory in TROUBLE, where they reminded me at times of the creature in ALIEN; hers are the castrating incisors that squeamish big-talk no-guts films like TEETH and HARD CANDY boast of but are scared to deliver, even on deserving pedophiles and rapists. Dalle doesn't need a reason to kill or castrate: It just comes naturally and her crazy sexual frenzy in TROUBLE EVERY DAY is truly terrifying and sexy at the same time, and puts the softcore sleaze of BASIC INSTINCT's ice pick murders to shame.

I came the long way around to BETTY BLUE in the early 1991, rented it on chick advice, was wary about subtitles since they were hard to read on VHS (sometimes they were just cut halfway off by the bottom of the screen, remember?) But - a strong gin and tonic and 20 minutes past the credits I fell 'in love' with the film, and after hitting my third or fourth drink of the morning, I was ready to fight to defend it, but of course no one was there to fight with me. Still it was like I had fallen in love with a person, a person who couldn't walk straight or uncross her eyes, maybe, but if anyone made a wise crack I'd belt them in her honor. Roger Ebert, for example, missed the point and thus decided everyone else missed the point, not him! Here's what he wrote about the film on Christmas Day in 1986:

Oh Jeeze, Roger! That's a bit like saying "People say VERTIGO is about obsession, madness, and castration anxiety, but it's really about Jimmy Stewart driving around San Francisco, and everything else is just what happens at places he drives to." Oh Roger, your insecure patriarchal need to shoot the lesbians at the end of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is suddenly laid as bare as those 'boobs and behind' (even his word choice gives him away). See? I'm still fighting to defend it.

It was, I realized, the first subtitled foreign language film I really 'loved.' PERSONA and LA DOLCE VITA were both close seconds, but my love for them was like an undergrad English student's love for Shakespeare: trepidatious, intimidated, a hair out of my element. If they were girlfriends, PERSONA would be that aloof beauty you end up heartbroken alone in your room over as she wanders off into the rainy dark to kill herself and wont let you follow. DOLCE is that party girl who stays up all the time doing coke and is ultimately, once you get past the glitter, shallow and manic-depressive with Catholic guilt, maybe even still a virgin. BETTY on the other hand is the sexy girl you shack up with one drunk night and a week goes by before you realize she hasn't left, even to get her things, and by the time you notice and try to stop fucking long enough to think of an excuse why she needs to leave you realize she's clinging to you like a python and you're too hooked on her hotness to even resist when she strangles you. Unlike play-it-safe inside the lines Ebert some of us like to have our lives destroyed by unstable hot messes! What else are they for?

As her patient lover, the maintenance man, aspiring writer and part-time house painter Zorg, Jean-Hugues Anglade in the film can't go unmentioned. He's no mere 'beard' the way he would later become when strugglin' with English as a French cop in films like MAXIMUM RISK (1996) or as the default boyfriend for LA FEMME NIKITA (1990), by which time the shaggy edges of his role in BETTY had worn off, or else been shorn by producers and directors who didn't understand the importance of his Serge Gainsbourg-ishness. But here he's perfect as a drunken writer who loves his manic muse to the point where he can only shrug every time she goes ballistic and starts smashing the furniture and torching buildings. Zorg's mellow acceptance taught me not to interfere or judge when a hot mess girlfriend goes postal on another man, or piece of property. His Parisian "what can I do?" shrug makes us mad when we're ugly American tourists trying to get directions to the Louvre, but in the context of dealing with psycho girlfriends, well, it's genius. I mention him because it's the lack of an Anglade in the later Dalle films that would signify the madness: Zorg would know when to walk away, know when to run, know when to commit to a sanitarium. Without him, Dalle ran amok. 

Like SPECIES later, BETTY BLUE was one of the films I would watch over and over and yet never see all the way to the end, either stopping or passing out beforehand. The only time I ever got to the end was when I was too drunk or half-asleep to change the channel. The soapy taste of sacrifice and CUCKOO'S NEST regret seemed tacked on, but the reason it worked was because the giddy joy that came before, when the pair hook up with a similar nutsy, drunk couple, Lisa (Consuelo De Haviland) and Eddy (Gerard Darmon) and spend many a fun night doing 'tequila rapidos' and dancing and singing and joking about Alpha Romeos in silk kimonos (below, opening the kimonos).


This kind of 'letting go' is something that seems uniquely French. Americans never seem to get this loose unless it's just the boys or the girls or a sleazy 'mixed party' stereotype like the scene with Jane and her friend bringing boors back from the bar in COMING HOME, or that drab New Years celebration in FOREST GUMP. Here the vibe isn't lewd like an American salesman out of town or sad like some Antonioni orgy. This quartet have already had sex, a lot of it. They're just happy to have another couple to celebrate with. The sex is lived: Dalle's 'behind' deglamourized by a pair of ugly loose silk women's underwear, Anglade nakedly trying to hammer apart a couch with a lit cigarette, this is neither the airbrushed buffness of late night softcore but a beautiful offhand slacker eroticism. Zorg and Betty are a couple that would never sit still for the slow seductions of Rohmer, but rather plunge through the world like crazy screaming brakes-off banshees, but not like the abstraction of Godard or the hopelessness of Truffaut or the airlessness of Araki but rather the acceptance and in-the-moment-beauty and camaraderie of Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray.

 

BLUE divides a joyful freedom and acceptance first half with a long downward spiral second half, an arc that informed in a slew of late 90's and early 00's movies like BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), TRAINSPOTTING (1996), MONSTER (2003), IT'S ALL GONE, PETE TONG (2004); and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000), all very open about the highs and lows of drug use --that fast white light upward blast of the first Friday night MDMA-twinkle you've been waiting your whole life for followed by a long slow downward death spiral that ends with crying in the office bathroom on Tuesday morning. In BETTY BLUE, tragedy strikes when Eddy's mom dies suddenly and Zorg and Betty take over said mom's piano store in a far-off beach town. It's there they play a beautiful little motif on a pair of pianos that seems like they just tossed it off on the spot but it lingers in the mind and sums up the sense of loss that comes when we realize we'll never get that joy we felt with the tequila rapidos back again. 

If you were drinking the way I was, or just maudlin and 23 in a time before widespread Prozac usage, it was the ultimate sorrow, 1990-1992 - the nights of fun with Eddy and Lisa were gone. The band broke up and college was over and there were no jobs. The feeling was like you just got accepted by the cool kids after years of painful loserdom and sobesky-hood-- and then everyone graduated and went home -- you swing in the sweaty withdrawal symptom wind with your mom knocking on your door asking for a urine sample. 

It's that sweet remembrance of things past that suffuses the rest of BETTY BLUE, and lingers on in Claire Denis' TROUBLE EVERY DAY, a glacial, mostly nonverbal film that offers no sense of joy or belonging, only the terror of imagining your own human carnal lust leading you to a grisly agonizing doom, the fate of being ripped apart by a maniacal lover. Such grisly potential forces us as viewers into weird moral positions, like a game of Twister devised by a coked-up pope, as the slow and relentless tug of sexual desire drags lonely people to their deaths via a very long, snaking chain tied to a dropping anchor.

TROUBLE fulfills the promise of CAT PEOPLE which told of a race of humans who would turn into black leopards after making love and could turn human again only after taking a life. However in Paul Schrader's 1982 version, these killings were kind of tepid; the sex was over before the transformation so it came off a bit tame (the panther strikes while the victim is lolling around in a post-coitus haze). None of that waiting around for Denis! The way Dalle continues to obliviously whisper and coo in her now dead lovers' ears for example, links to her a real cat lady, the type tries to keep toying and torturing their lifeless prey long after its dead. Such scenes are few and far between, such scenes make producers uncomfortable because they threaten the safety of their model of the cinemagoer as one already dead and presumed therefore impervious to attack; as if the image and the eye are tectonic plates and the idea of cinema is to promise contact yet prevent any actual buckling or triggering of a massive modernist earthquake. In true post-cinematic Asia Argento / Samara fashion, Dalle's sexuality causes the simulacratic melt-down bubble, wherein the covetous eye is torn out in a fit of enjoyment that transcends all textual boundaries.

Variously dismissed, panned or gushed over by the few who've seen it, TROUBLE never really explains itself. We deduce that Vince Gallo is a chemist of the WEREWOLF OF LONDON / Henry Hull variety, tracking down a rare plant extract cure for his malady. This malady is unnamed, but clearly causes an increasingly unbearable urge to devour during sex. Denis cuts back and forth between Dalle's LET THE RIGHT ONE IN-style handler and Gallo on his honeymoon in a Paris hotel, where his stalker-killer lust is focused not on his wife but on the cute hotel maid who comes in every day to make the bed. Dalle has devolved farther along in the disease, to where she can barely talk and spends each night breaking out of the prison her handler keeps her in, each night heading to the same lonesome stretch of road where truckers apparently pull over for sex, and are soon pulled to pieces.

Gallo and Dalle-- it's gradually revealed through incidental conversations--once had kind of a thing for each other while doing research together in Africa (where they presumably found the plant, thus linking this film to GANJA AND HESS!) and as their paths look like they will intersect we brace ourselves for what the Netflix liner notes erroneously refer to as a joint killing-spree. There are however ingenious moments like Gallo and his bride hanging out atop Notre Dame, whose spires covered in gargoyles bear a passing resemblance to both Gallo (his weird eyes) and Dalle (her demonic teeth). I'm not going to start getting into the whole reptilian conspiracy thing (read up on it here!) but Denis' thoughtful inclusion of these images brings a kind of Antonioni-esque post-modern amnesia to the events. We don't need plot exposition because we know the story and all its variations. In not laying out lots of expository dialogue, Denis--like Antonioni--allows the associations and timeless miasmatude' to form as it will. 


I wont spoil the particulars, but the key moment, the grisly highlight, is the sex/devouring scene of Dalle's with a horny neighbor kid who breaks into her locked room, and of course gets far more than he bargained for. Shots of the kids' accomplice downstairs waiting nervously for him, hearing the muffled screams of agony and his ambiguous reaction, reminded me a lot of a key scene, quite similar, in the original I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. And hey, that's a good thing. TROUBLE EVERY DAY has got a bad rap as being disgusting and dull, but I think, again, its this squeamishness critics have with seeing hot girls castrate their prey. I get grossed out by a lot of things, but for some reason I find female-on-male sexual mutilation to be quite positive, maybe as there's so much violence done in the other direction, I'm a big one for balance... and anyway, it's the fuckin' movies! 

Inside (2007)
Last in the trilogy is one of those 'one wild night' horror films that seem to unfold in real time: INSIDE tells the story of a pregnant woman (Alysson Paradis) living in a ROSEMARY'S BABY style bubble of patronizing patriarchal infantalization that gets busted open, literally figuratively and metatextually, by Beatrice Dalle's covetous vengeance-seeker. As I wrote in 2008:
"The Netflix liner notes say that in INSIDE, Beatrice Dalle "relentlessly pursues the pregnant Sarah, determined to perform a grisly brand of C-section." I think the "grisly brand" is key here, as it implies there is a non-grisly brand. The patronizing treatment expectant mother Alysson Paradis receives from her mom, the hospital, and her distracted married man boss sets the bar of pro-life patriarchal oppression to high right from the start. There's a refreshing lack of "sanctity of motherhood" posing, which has become so ingrained in the contemporary American cinema. With this disillusioning, we are made to realize that all c-sections are grisly; birth is a cruel and nasty business which no amount of drugs, sanitary surfaces and hospital hooplah can deny. INSIDE gets to the meat of the matter, with humor and a fine sense of real time pacing.
Made only five years after TROUBLE EVERY DAY, Dalle's beauty has 'faded' more than a bit. She's no Isabelle Huppert or Isabelle Adjani--two actresses who will probably stay hot into their 80s, but so what? While both Adjani and Huppert can play super fierce and fucked-up women when the role demands, our Beatrice Dalle is something else entirely-- she is that fucked-up fierce, and if art imitates life you could take her three films as something like a portrait of supersexy evil genius insanity in the making. Hers is the evolution of a hottie nymph  from bi-polar slugger losing her shit over not being able to have a baby (BLUE); to sympathetic cannibal (TROUBLE), to a completely unsympathetic monster out to take a baby for herself, right out of another woman's womb. But is it a tragedy, or a triumph? Doesn't being the monster mean you--and you alone, get to not be afraid of the dark?

Now, the ideas on display in INSIDE were, I thought at the time, just a crazy French sensationalists' morbid imagination. But as the Investigative Discovery TV show Deadly Women has taught me, it's happened quite a few times in real life. In fact it happened in 2007, the same year as INSIDE came out! Sacre bleu!! Crimes like these prove when push comes to shove, women can be just as crazy sick as men anytime, even sicker. Of course here at Acidemic we call that a victory. Why? because again, at least in the context of our discussion, it's movies! No one is really getting killed by Dalle, and after all, by the end of the trilogy, Betty Blue gets what she wanted--a child.


By turns tragic, comic, sexy, horrifying and terribly sad, this loose trilogy of BETTY BLUE, TROUBLE EVERY DAY, and INSIDE form a grand and very French salute to dangerous women. In all three films Dalle's madness is triumphant; she remains unconquered by patriarchy's desperate chokeholds. Even if she's burned alive, electroshocked, stabbed, strangled, or smothered, she still wins, one way or the other. No wonder Dalle is such an icon! She appeals to the cultured European melancholic degenerate in us all, the one who sees not wisely but too far, and knows that sex and death are so close to one another along the fault lines of existence as to be inseparable; step too close to the crack and you find yourself caught in the thin slice of ground between their gaping fissures and nowhere to go but down into the crevasse. How, after all, can you go back to safe distances now that you've been so close? How could you live? To desire sex but fear death, or vice versa is to live an anxious lie, what Buddhists call samsara. Dalle is way past samsara. As a persona, an icon, she dwells in the harrowing truth beyond the wobbly front tricycle wheel of life; she's the bubble gum card fluttering in its spokes; her terrible teeth are our deliverance from the mundane irrelevance of man.

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