Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Claude Chabrol's Betty is a devastating, moving, extraordinarily acted portrait of a lost soul whose drinking and sexual promiscuity isolate her from the bourgeois family she's married into, and from which she's eventually ejected entirely. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon, the film is a deeply affecting study of addiction and disconnection. Marie Trintignant delivers an astonishing performance as the title character, exploring the confusion, depression, and fragility of this aimless young woman — as well as the undercurrent of emotional coldness and cruelty that perhaps lies beneath her surface frailty.
The film opens with a sequence that suggests a familiar Chabrol thriller in the offing. Betty is picked up by a twitchy, increasingly creepy man who claims he's a doctor, and goes with him to a club called Le Trou, a reference perhaps to the Jacques Becker classic as well as an indication that the people inhabiting this bar have reached the bottom, that they've sunk so low they're underground and desperately trying to tunnel out. As Betty swigs glass after glass of whiskey, the doctor begins exhibiting increasingly disturbing signs that he's no more stable than the woman he picked up. His patter becomes chilling, even vaguely threatening, as he talks about dead animals and gets noticeably sweaty, not that Betty, immersed in her drinks, seems to care about her companion's unhinged demeanor. The scene seems to be building to an apex of sinister violence, particularly when the doctor, his sweaty visage framed in profile against the cool blue of a fish tank in the background, tells Betty that she has worms underneath her skin, and that he'll dig them out for her with a needle he keeps handy.
Chabrol is offering up a red herring here, setting up what seems to be a thriller of predation and violence, when in fact this is a very different kind of movie, and the encounter with the doctor is soon defused by the arrival of the kindly bar owner Mario (Jean-François Garreaud) and his lover, Laure (Stéphane Audran), who explains that the doctor is a drug addict. Far from being a violent thriller, this is a quietly intense character study, an intimate portrait of a woman who, like everyone else in Le Trou, has sunk to her seeming low point, fallen as far as she can.
Betty is taken in by Laure, a woman of the upper-class who's rejected society after the death of her husband, retreating to a nice but isolated hotel and making nightly visits to Le Trou. As Laure helps Betty to recover from her desolation, Betty's story is doled out in fits and starts via flashbacks. She'd been married to Guy (Yves Lambrecht), the youngest son of a wealthy and prestigious bourgeois family, until Guy and his domineering mother (Christiane Minazzoli) had walked in on Betty having sex with one of the many lovers she'd taken to distract herself from a numbing, alienating existence. Betty was sleepwalking through life, and Chabrol, of course, is excellent at portraying the deadening effect of bourgeois home life. Betty felt detached even from her two daughters, who were so well-cared-for by a hired nurse that Betty was superfluous, a stranger to her own children, basically only interacting with them to give them a good-night kiss. She had a seemingly ideal life, on paper at least, but it never truly felt like her life, which is why she secretly drinks and arranges her constant affairs. When she gets caught, it seems like she wants to get caught, that she's secretly setting herself up for a confrontation, for something to shake her out of this dreadful nothingness.
Trintignant is exceptional here, plumbing the depths of this woman's misery and seemingly irresistible urge towards self-destruction. One of her lovers, a medical student (Thomas Chabrol) who loves to psychoanalyze her, asks her, "you know your problem?" Betty abruptly becomes serious, intent, flatly answering, "no, tell me," her desperate need to understand herself showing through what had otherwise been a somewhat casual conversation. The way she says it, it's obvious that she really wants to understand herself and her "problem," to pick apart why she is the way she is, even if this pretentious young man with his rote recitations of Freudian subtext doesn't actually have any of the answers. It's a small moment, the nuances of Trintignant's performance embodied in every little line like this, always communicating the submerged intensity of this sad woman.
Audran, in her last role in a Chabrol film, is equally remarkable, as a woman who is in her way every bit as damaged as Betty is, but has managed to recover, to carve out a small and comfortable life for herself as a balm for her loss and sadness. She is a glimpse of a possible future for Betty, and perhaps Betty herself also sees it, because in the film's devastating and unexpected finale, Betty, selfishly rejecting the possibility of growth or true healing, simply grasps for what her friend has and takes it. Betty, beneath her hurt and her victimhood, has a cold and calculating side to her as well, a darkness that prevents her from seeing a less destructive route out of her rut. The coda, which chronicles the minimal effect of all this emotion and self-destructiveness on the chilly, perpetually polite world of the bourgeois — the world that both Laure and Betty had fled for different reasons — adds a final ironic twist to the film's bleak picture. It's a powerful and intense film that is unsparing in its depiction of the central character's weaknesses, as well as her surprising and cruel strengths.