Bette: Directed by Claude Chabrol, based on Georges Simenon Novel

Three films dealing with romance are opening this week, Tony Scott’s True Romance, Bette by Frenchman Claude Chabrol, and Wedding Banquet, a lovely farce, made by Ang Lee, a Taiwanese-American filmmaker. Each explores love while using a different narrative strategy and style, yet all three indicate in their own way the relevance of romance and passion in our increasingly tumultuous world.

I cant’ think of a film that is so antithetical to True Romance than Chabrol’s noirish Betty. Betty (Marie Trintignant), a beautiful girl, passes out in a bar, where she had been drinking with a sleazy pickup. Laure (Stephane Audran), the older lover of the bar’s owner, Mario (Jean-Francois Garreau) volunteers to take care of her, putting her up in a nice hotel for rest. Soon Laure proves to be an obstacle in Betty’s pursuit of Mario.

Chabrol’s screenplay is an adaptation of the noted French writer Georges Simenon. Both are fascinated with the survival instincts of human beings. Chabrol has favored strong characterization over plot. The central mystery–Betty’s identity–is never adequately or completely resolved. Chabrol said he set out to “explore” a human being, whose secrets could not be fully known or understood.” “I wasn’t trying to understand Betty, I accepted her the way she was. I, like Simenon, wanted to make her survive at any cost.”

Not much really happens by way of plot: The presentation is slow and wordy–particularly by American standards. Most of the narrative consists of interaction between the two women. In an attempt to reveal how Bette has fallen so low, Chabrol intercuts with flashbacks from her former life. But he’s really only suggesting–not explaining–how Bette has become so manipulative and self-destructive. Still, as in every Chabrol film, the psychology and milieu of the characters ring true and, unlike True Romance; it’s not a pastiche of big, melodramatic scenes. Unlike the post-modernist True Romance, Betty’s point of view is consistent: all the events and characters are seen–and filtered–through Betty’s eyes.

Watching Betty makes one realize the changes that have taken place in conventions and of the differences between American and French genre films. By contemporary American standards, Bette is civilized, almost old-fashioned–a mystery without shock values, dashing visuals, or montage.

A critic for Cahiers du Cinema in the l950s and a major force of the New Wave movement in the early 60s, Chabrol’s career has spanned 35 years and close to 50 films. His output includes some of the darkest and most penetrating studies of obsession and murder, often of women, ever to reach the French screen. As personal statements, Chabrol’s dramas have helped posit the “auteur,” or director, as key creator of the cinematic work.

Some of you may remember the dark and cruelly ironic, Les Cousins (1959), a decadent tale of Parisian student bohemians, a crucial New Wave work with its hallmarks of realism, intimacy, informal style, and bold content. Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) dealt with psychopaths and underlined Chabrol’s fascination with murder. Chabrol enjoyed his golden era in the late 60s, triumphing with a string of successful thrillers, Le Biches (1967), La Femme Infidele (1968), Le Boucher (1969), which explored the director’s signature theme of obsession and compulsion.

His long-standing professional relationships with actress Stephane Audran, whom he married in l964, and some writers and technicians, guaranteed his sustained development as a filmmaker.

Chabrol enjoyed something of a comeback in 1977 with the stunning Violette, another real-life murder tale. He collaborated with producer Marin Karmitz in l988 on the critically acclaimed Story of Women, a bleak tale of a woman (Isabelle Huppert), who performs illegal abortions in order to support herself during the Nazi occupation of France.

As the story unfolds, additional characters, including Betty’s family members, are brought into the puzzle. Appearances and first impressions are deceptive. The movie builds up tension by unveiling more and more bizarre events of Betty’s past.

Betty is a vintage Chabrol, even if he sometimes errs on the side of understatement, because it features his characteristic irony and moral ambiguity. Like most of Chabrol’s films, Betty is painstakingly realized, proving again his proficient technical skills, great ease at story telling and, unlike other French directors, unpretentiousness.

Vastly underestimated, Chabrol is a director who uses the camera as fluently as if it were a pen. A sublime craftsman, his pictures are carefully controlled; they don’t scream at you with mega close-ups. The way Chabrol’s camera pans to make points and the way it backs away are truly remarkable. Chabrol’s intentions are perfectly achieved: he should be admired for his total control of the medium to the point of simplicity and self-effacement.

As with every Chabrol film, it’s certain that ironies will abound and that at the end of Betty there will be a dramatic reversal of relationships between the apparently powerful and apparently powerless. Ironies abound.