The erotic drama "Betty Blue" opens with young lovers Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and Betty (Béatrice Dalle) enjoying a session of bed-breaking sex beneath the tranquil gaze of a reproduction Mona Lisa. As we have spent centuries debating the mystery behind La Gioconda's smile, Zorg devotes himself to understanding Betty, who is as cracked and crazed as Da Vinci's paintwork. Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1986 international hit returns to theaters in a three-hour director's cut, a playful, meandering, somewhat confusing tale that hangs together as a portrait of demented love. The film's thesis is that there is a limit to man's understanding, and that limit is woman.

Betty is a waitress-cum-bombshell who jump-starts Zorg's life with a tidal wave of unconditional love. She declares the handyman a creative genius, insisting that his old journals are a magnificent novel, which she sends to every publisher in France. The rejection letters that come in reply ("I return this nauseating flower you call a novel'') move the Bardot-like baby doll to attack a foppish editor, slashing his face with a metal comb.

That's Betty: stratospheric highs, cataclysmic lows. She's a bombshell, all right -- a harmonic convergence of sex, charisma and hysteria. Cross her and she's likely to throw a bucket of paint on your car, set fire to your bungalow or stab you with a fork.

While their relationship is in its erotic early stage, devoted Zorg thrills to the unhinged, volatile look in Betty's lovely eyes. Zorg tries to domesticate Betty, buying a car and a quaint farmhouse. But when she decides their life together requires a child and kidnaps one, even the besotted Zorg recognizes he can't shield his lover from the consequences of her actions much longer. He still tries to play the hero, staging a robbery in a farcical disguise to fund a happy-ever-after future, but Betty is one flaming train wreck that can't be put back on the rails.

The film is a feast for the senses, with a haunting piano theme and impressive cinematography. Beineix, whose slickly designed "Diva" launched the film movement known as the "cinema du look," contrasts tranquil landscapes against busy, hothouse interiors where the lovers' psychodrama plays out. His crane shot of the couple's beach cabin all aflame has the surreal punch of a Dali purgatory. Even the primary color scheme gears up subliminal tensions. When Betty is surrounded by the soothing color blue, she's generally stable; when there's no blue in view, watch out.

Beineix is less sure-footed in his storytelling. He mashes in odd bits of nonsense and eccentric minor characters with no plot function. There's a berserk trash collector and a testy gendarme who exist only for moments of unfocused comic incongruity. Dalle and Anglade are used as gorgeous and frequently nude physical specimens. Their acting ranges from arch tomfoolery to full Freudian blowout, but in the throes of carnal abandon, they're utterly convincing. Like Betty herself, Beineix's film is gorgeous, infuriating, but never a bore.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186