This Betty Blue article was written by Jessica Otterwell
Stereotypically you might expect this soundtrack to start with saxophone and it does. Stereotypical because Betty Blue (37° 2 le matin) Jean-Jacques Beineix’s now cult drama from 1986, starring Béatrice Dalle, begins as typically as any piece of sultry French independent cinema before or since. A beautiful woman, a passionate affair and slow descent in blackening despair and insanity have been explored countless times, take anything starring Isabelle Huppert to find similar themes.
That being said, it should not take anything away from the power of this soundtrack and how it not only adds depth to the film but works as a stand-alone piece. Gabriel Yared has long been celebrated for his contribution to French cinema. By 1986 he had worked with godfather of the French New Wave, Jean Luc Goddard and had composed music for the likes of Francoise Hardy. Yared’s pop sensibilities have never abandoned him and he continues to use a mix of traditional and electronic influences even now. Most recently working with French-Canadian wonder kid, Xavier Dolan on Tom a la Ferme (2013), which in many ways shares similarities with Betty Blue in both overarching theme and soundtrack.
What is masterful about the soundtrack to Betty Blue is the way in which it guides the listener through the film but is never intrusive. The first half of the album is seductive, light and inviting. The piano is playful, romantic, and wistful at times, particularly when showcasing the theme that Betty’s lover, Zorg plays her on the piano (C’est le vent, Betty). It’s as though life will be carefree for the couple. This theme is revisited with harmonica and guitar in Bungalow Zen, this theme represents light and hope, it’s gentle and playful. Yared makes sure to pack a powerful punch as this sits alongside moody jazz saxophone, as the darkness begins to set in.
As Betty’s violent and psychotic episodes emerge, the soundtrack moves to become maddening, synths are introduced. The piano is mournful. Yared’s skill is evident mostly, when he depicts the slow decent into madness that Betty experiences, and the breakdown of the central relationship, using only instruments. This danger and foreboding is key to his work as mentioned previously he revisited these themes when scoring Xavier Dolan’s Tom a la Ferme (2013) and the soundtracks sound remarkably similar to each other.
There is the unmistakably 1980s feel. This at times could make for a dated listen, but it was a product of its time and the swooning snyths and squalling soft rock guitars justify this. What Yared is particularly apt as doing is creating juxtaposition between the drama unfolding on screen and the soundtrack behind it. When Betty’s illness is at its height, Yared uses the disturbing and unnerving sound of the funfair to represent the sound of insanity.
Much like 37° 2 le matin itself, there is heart in this composition. The music represents the character of Betty beautifully because much like her moods, the music sways from seductive, to loving, to crazed and violent in and instant. Listening to this you are drawn to the characters even more and that makes the whole thing have a tragic, mysterious beauty. Although relatively early in Yared’s career as a film composer, his work on Betty Blue (37° 2 le matin) set him apart as an artist who can mix classical with contemporary to create something magical.