Set in a provincial town in the great rural expanses of western France, there’s a debilitating claustrophobia to Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room, a tightly coiled retelling of the 1964 Georges Simenon novel. Surrounded by verdant fields and miles of open road, with seclusion comes isolation, and lashings of heavy rain. It is seduction that sees the actor-director’s character, Julien, become inextricably entwined in an ill-fated and ever more sinister spiral of lust and adulterous behaviour with mistress, Esther (Stéphanie Cléau, a co-writer with Amalric).
Accusations fly but the why, the how and even the what of an ominous narrative thread is revealed with painstaking, tantalising restraint. An ever-shifting temporal landscape, a bombardment of questioning from various interlocuters and a leading man slippery as an eel, devoid of any genuine emotion – Amalric’s piercingly dark stare at its finest here – mean this icy thriller plays out with chilling unpredictability. It is a sordid game of snakes and ladders with an overbearing air of oppressive paranoia that recalls, to some extent, Polanski at his best. The great majority of The Blue Room occurs in interior spaces at very close – frequently intimate quarters, and just as this psychological study of obsession is internalised and will worm its way into the consciousness of a viewer, Amalric has chosen a squared aspect ratio to further enclose, but also focus, our field of vision.
At just 76 minutes time is of the essence and each and every moment is put to economical use, no shot superfluous or without targeted meaning. We first meet Julien and Esther in the bedroom of the film’s title. The walls may be a cool azure but intimate close-ups, accompanied by carnal sound, dominate passionate opening frames. From the outset there’s a disconcerting edge to pleasures of the flesh as Esther bites her lover’s lip, causing a drop of blood to drop onto pristine white sheets. As if in response to this violent foreboding a jarring cut away to a police station sees Julien, bearded and weary, answering questions fired at him by police out for blood of their own. Further interviews – in front of a judge, a prison psychiatrist and his own lawyer – slowly feed information behind Julien’s dirty deeds and inaccuracies between his testimony and narrated recollections cause us to question his integrity.
Scored by Grégoire Hetzel, smacks of strings and imperceptibly haunting wind instruments further envelop this whodunnit in a constrictive aural blanket. The finger of blame spins like a compass as a public trials brings The Blue Room to its conclusion with questions finally answered, or are they? A headline glimpsed in the local rag reports of the depraved actions of ‘les amants frénétiques’ which has so shocked pitchfork-wielding busybodies but there’s nothing frenetic in Amalric’s handling of material for which he has a clear reverence. His assured performance – in front and behind the camera – is as commendable as his character’s supposed actions onscreen are not.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens