BEIRUT: In a Versailles hotel suite, a young woman named Betty picks though an envelope of photos and retails her past life to an older woman, named Laure. Each photograph provokes a new memory, with Laure lubricating her storytelling with glasses of J&B whiskey, neat. It’s not torture. Betty and Laure both seem to enjoy the stuff.
Betty Etamble (the late Marie Trintignant) had stumbled into The Hole, an unsavory dive on the edge of Versailles, the night before. Fully drunk, Betty was dressed in bourgeois attire, but disheveled as any loose woman who’s down on her luck.
With the help of her lover Mario, the owner of The Hole, Laure LeVaucher (Stéphane Audran) had rescued Betty, taken her back to her hotel and lodged her in an adjoining room.
Pulling out a snap of a teenage girl, Betty recalls how, when she was a youngster, she lived with her aunt and uncle, who employed this girl, Thérèse, as a servant. Her recollection of how she envied Thérèse’s budding sexuality conjures up another figure – Schwartz, a medical school student who himself lived in a maid’s room near Paris’ Place de Ternes.
Schwartz, who was fond of Freudian analysis, would tease Betty that Thérèse had been a formative influence on her character. Moving her narrative from her aunt and uncle’s provincial cafe to Schwartz’s Paris garret, Betty breezily recalls how, looking though the window from the med student’s bed, all the roofs of Place de Ternes were spread out before her.
“Charlotte,” her first child, Betty recalls, “was by then a year old.”
For audience members in early 2014, Claude Chabrol’s film looks like a thing of melodrama. When Betty casually alludes to her affair with Schwartz early in her marriage to her husband Guy – and does so without musical cues, actorly mugging or other formal apparatus of melodrama – you realize the writer-director’s concerns lie elsewhere.
Chabrol’s award-winning 1994 film – Trintignant took the best actress prize at Italy’s Taormina International Film Festival – is among the works being projected in Des Miroirs et des Masques, a retrospective of Chabrol films now up at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.
It’s difficult to place “Betty” within today’s refined genre categories. What begins as a melodramatic morality tale veers into critical scrutiny of the French bourgeoisie – a favorite subject for many Nouvelle Vague filmmakers – which is sketched in a few tropes.
These creatures are distinguished by a certain formality. Madame Etamble (Christiane Minazzoli), the family matriarch, insists that Betty go by “Elizabeth.” Since she is expected to exist distilled within a state of indolence, a domineering Swiss nurse is employed to raise her two daughters, leaving Betty to question the existence of anything like a matriarchal instinct.
As the film unfolds, via a judicious use of flashback, the upper middle class’ strong sense of self-regard is spiced with a bitter dose of hypocrisy. By the time she meets Guy Etamble (Yves Lambrecht), Betty knows that she ought not be married, yet her boyfriend insists that he wasn’t born yesterday and will take her, warts and all.
When one evening she is found sitting in her mother-in-law’s favorite spot on the couch, in flagrante delicto with a sax player, Guy and Betty’s in-laws force her to sign away all rights to her kids in return for a cash settlement. Yet, as she trawls through her whiskey-fueled back story, it is revealed that indiscretions like wife-swapping and such were not uncommon among Guy’s circle of pals.
Chabrol also flags the 20th-century’s sentimental attachment to both reason and human relationships.
Though Laure’s life is quite different from that of Betty, she is a woman of experience and sympathy that makes her seem a kindred spirit. Over the course of several days, the two women consume several bottles of J&B and bare their life histories to one another.
The film returns to Schwartz’s inquiries into Betty’s relationship with Thérèse.
“You couldn’t see what she could, and did, like [your uncle routinely ravishing her like a beast],” Schwartz concluded in a bit of post-coital analysis. “A woman should suffer for a man. That’s what marked you.”
“He was right,” Betty tells Laure. “I thought women had to suffer, to be victims.”
By the penultimate act of “Betty,” this reasoned approach to storytelling has narrated the adulteress into a sympathetic character. Once he is certain that the audience is capable of liking Betty, Chabrol’s character commits her joyful, final betrayal.
Chabrol’s closing narrative gesture undermines the viewer’s (perhaps bourgeois) relationship with the protagonist. More than that, it wrecks the mechanism that made it possible to reason your way to empathy.
“Thank you Doctor Freud,” Betty’s younger self replies to Schwartz after he delivers his diagnosis of how her time with Thérèse has formed her character. “But aren’t you specializing in dermatology?”
“We are whole,” Schwartz shrugs, “inside and out.”
“Betty” is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Monday at 8 p.m. For more info, see www.metropoliscinema.net/2014/retrospective-claude-chabrol-des-miroirs-et-des-masques/.