NYFF 2014: Mathieu Amalric has a dark heart in ‘The Blue Room’

la chambre bleue posterThe Blue Room
Written for the screen by Mathieu Amalric and Stéphanie Cléau
Directed by Mathieu Amalric
France, 2014

In Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room, love is a corrosive agent, an arsenic-like poison that slowly works its way into your heart. Amalric writes, directs and stars in this contorted but calculated little flick with a dark beating heart, adapted from a slim novel by Georges Simenon. It depicts the prelude to and aftermath of a possible murder (eschewing the actual murder itself, leaving things gleefully ambiguous). Amalric plays Julien Gahyde, who’s suspected of killing his wife (Lea Drucker). Amalric’s real-life partner Stéphanie Cléau plays Julien’s mistress, Esther Despierre, whose sickly husband owns a pharmacy with his mother. Amalric displays admirable trust in his viewers; he doesn’t withhold information as much as he carefully feeds us certain contemplated bits that add up to a beautifully hazy whole.

As with most great films (not that I’m proclaiming this to be great — it’s not — but it definitely has some great tendencies), the seemingly insignificant details — a shot of Julien reaching for cleaning supplies; a drop of strawberry jam falling onto a laptop; a fold-up chair being taken away — are keen, often cryptic observations, not filler and not simply for aesthetics. Amalric delivers the narrative in slivers and shards and elliptical scenes of Julien with his family, playing with his daughter, pretending to drown his wife, eloping with Esther, all of which winds back around to Julien’s encroaching trial. His innocence, or lack thereof, is never firmly established, but it doesn’t matter. The present acts as a root note around which the past eddies like an echo effect. The first words are, “Did I hurt you?”, a phrase that becomes the haunting theme of the movie. The first images are of a swollen bead of blood trickling down Julien’s lip, falling onto his bed and soaking into the bed sheet. We get some gorgeous glimpses of Julien and Esther in the thralls of passion (Amalric’s 4:3 compositions put your Instagram feed to shame), and a brief snippet of Julien being interrogated by a guy who looks like the French Chazz Palminteri.

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Julien and Esther’s indiscretions go down in a tiny hotel known as the Blue Room, which gets its name from the verdigris walls, mottled with cracks and flecks of paints. The boxy 4:3 aspect ratio makes the tryst feel claustrophobic, at once licentious yet discomforting. As with the laceration on Julien’s lip, sex is conflated with violence, beauty with lurking dread. As seen through Julien, lust definitely usurps love. The atmosphere isn’t noirish, as some have claimed, though it does depict a similar moral purging of its characters. Ebert once stated that “in noir, there are no more heroes.” The Blue Room instead shows the ruination of purportedly good people in a purportedly normal relationship. Yet, Amalric has little interest in explicitly depicting the fights, the caught-in-the-act confrontations, the denials that are so routine of ruined relationships. He treats marital denigration as an afterthought. The dearth of quarreling couples is undoubtedly one of the reasons Amalric keeps the film going at such a tidy clip, too. The narrative moves with knowing celerity, bouncing back and forth between various points of Julien’s familial life, his affair, his contemplations of murder, his police examinations, and, finally, his court room coda, without ever digressing or sputtering. Editor Francois Gedigier deserves much credit for the seemingly effortless transitions between shots and scenes and the distinct rhythm of the 76-minute film.

Amalric, one of the most respected French actors of his generation, proves a deft director. He knows when to linger and on what and for how long. His style is exact and exacting, and unafflicted by haste. He gives us those peeks at Julien and Esther’s unadorned bodies in The Blue Room; he puts his ill-fated couple in the red shroud of a car taillight as they kiss and plot, enveloped by autumn leaves; we see Julien eye his wife standing atop a stepladder, Julien eying the glass table below her and the synapse between. In this last scene, without an embellishing note or any manipulative direction, Amalric injects tension into an otherwise uneventful moment, which culminates in several different strains of disappointment. The air is heavy with both insatiable lust and unrepentant hate.

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It’s worth mentioning that Amalric manages the difficult feat of making film sex sexy without resorting to the blatant objectification of women. The lustful delineation of Esther’s body as a sort of splendent entity is keeping with Julien and Esther’s passion. The way the camera ponders her body, sits tight while she writhes in bed with Julien, is noticeably more romantic than the rest of the film. Later, when the love has dissipated (for Julien, at least; for Esther, love is amaranthine), we see her as a person (a person whom Julien tries to strangle). The female characters are far from fleshed out, but that’s also in keeping with Julien’s apparent obliviousness, i.e. him not noticing that his wife clearly doesn’t like him holding her head underwater at the beach. (The confused look on his face as she swims away lets us know that he wasn’t really trying to harm her — knowingly, at least.)

Amalric gives us subtle but distinct motifs, drawing juxtapositions between the fervor of Julien’s flings with Esther and the banality of his home life: one draws blood, the other dribbles jam on his laptop. We see a wasp slowly crawl along Esther’s tan, sweat-licked belly; she doesn’t swat at it, or even flinch. Later we get a wasp seeking solace on Julien’s daughter’s ice cream cone, which causes the young girl to shriek.

Gregoire Hetzel’s score pervades the film almost ubiquitously. Channeling Herrmann’s influences rather than Bernard Herrmann himself (see: “Spanish Rhapsody”), Hetzel and Amalric harken back to the early days of noir, when the marriage of sound and vision had an undeniable romance to it. This is a stark, terse film, but it’s laced with stylistic flourishes. In a way it’s a pretty remarkable achievement, a sinister seed that blooms in the back of your head and continues to grow the more you think about it. It doesn’t amount to much at the end, but that’s kind of the point. The murder and affair don’t amount to much for Julien.

– Greg Cwik

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