Film of the Week: The Blue Room
These days, Mathieu Amalric plays adults with a bit of life experience behind them—a weary married man in Sophie Fillières’s recent If You Don’t, I Will, an émigré psychoanalyst in Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P., a burlesque impresario in his own On Tour (10). But Amalric still, as often as not, has the look of a frightened, small boy. That look worked superbly in his role as a theater director, and Polanski surrogate, terrorized by a femme fatale in Venus in Fur; and in Amalric’s own film The Blue Room, if he keeps that evident anguish more tightly under wraps, it still shows through as his character is outflanked by a sexually dominant mistress in this teasing jigsaw of a thriller, adapted from a Georges Simenon novel.
As a director, Amalric has been unpredictable if sometimes a little studious; till now, the film of his that most impressed me was L’Illusion comique (awkwardly translated as The Screen Illusion, 10), a brisk, elegant adaptation of a Corneille production by the Comédie-Française, staged in a Paris hotel with inescapable echoes of Godard’s Détective. But The Blue Room is by far his most adventurous film—tantalizing, fractured, and, at 76 minutes, beautifully concise. While it pushes the boat out stylistically, it’s also very faithful to the formal nature of Simenon’s book, which shows a certain laudable modesty on Amalric’s part. He wants to honor the original, and perhaps to remind us that a novelist still sometimes thought of as an indefatigable pulp factory was in fact an acute psychologist, a pitiless social critic, and a formal adventurer whose strategies (certainly in this 1964 novel) could hold their own against more exalted literary names.
The story is simple, and essentially mundane: a small-town affair between two people, Julien (Amalric) and Esther (Stéphanie Cléau, who co-scripted with Amalric), both of them married. Named Tony and Andrée in the novel, they were once schoolmates, and when they run into each other again after several years, Esther promptly tells Julien that she always had a thing for him. They make love on the spot, in the woods by a roadside, then embark on an affair, a series of passionate encounters in the hotel room of the title. One day, Julien spots her husband approaching the hotel; he runs, the spell is abruptly broken, he backs away from the affair… and that’s when things get complicated. Neither Simenon nor Amalric tells us for a long time what the upshot of all this is going to be, and neither will I, but we know from the start of both book and film that a criminal investigation is involved, with Julien facing a series of grillings from police (led here by director Serge Bozon), an examining magistrate (Laurent Poitrenaux, an actor with a look of wonderfully searching directness), and a prison psychiatrist (Blutch; yes, just “Blutch”).
Like the book, the film starts by throwing jumbled cards on the table and leaving us to get to work finding the order in them. The opening sequence is a bracing fugue of fragmentation: we hear Esther’s orgasmic cry, but what we see is the empty blue room, after (or before) the love-making. Disconnected shots show keys, crumpled linen, a relaxed post-coital hand or leg, a drop of blood on a sheet (echoed later by another shot, more Chabrolian in its ambiguity, of blood or possibly jam on a white laptop). We hear off-screen voices, hard at first to attach to sources or contexts: Esther’s opening words, “Did I hurt you?” (the story plays on her aggression, Julien’s feminization), presenting an enigma partly answered by one of Julien’s inquisitors, also off-screen: “Did she bite you often?” Glimpses of the couple’s trysts have an astonishing carnality, not because they’re graphic, but because Amalric and Cléau, partners in real life, have an easy complicity about shedding modesty in their nude scenes. The couple’s flesh is sweaty, a close-up kiss is laced with saliva, there’s a terrific shot of a fly on Esther’s naked belly.
The film establishes the blue room as a temporary heaven of sensuality (Simenon calls it “an over-heated room that smelled of sex”). The book is forthright, confrontationally so: the very first page features an image of Andrée’s parted thighs, with Tony’s sperm dripping out of her vagina. The film doesn’t go this far, but a brief image evokes it, with echoes of French painting’s most celebrated crotch shot, Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. Simenon was writing this in 1964, note, and you wonder whether he was responding to (and outdoing) a new matter-of-factness about sex in French cinema, in the Nouvelle Vague, in Vadim, in Clouzot’s 1960 The Truth (in which the fearless sexuality of the Bardot character is still cause for social and legal outrage). You wonder also whether the book’s formal brilliance resulted from Simenon’s response to the by-then-well-established nouveau roman: it’s as laced with gaps and indeterminacies as any anti-narrative by Robbe-Grillet or Michel Butor.
Later in the story, Julien is amazed to realize that his affair with Esther is public knowledge, although they apparently haven’t been discreet: he’s standing naked in the hotel window when he spots her husband. At one point, the couple is seen fucking upright in the same window at night, on full view to the street; or are they? Perhaps this image is Julien’s imagination or distorted reminiscence, or a projection of the story as reconstructed by his inquisitors. All we know for sure about this image is that it is part of the way that the film imagines the affair, which has a tang of heightened irreality from the start: when the couple make love in the woods, their encounter is accompanied by an unexpected surge of romantic strings in Grégoire Hetzel’s score. It all suggests that while Julien, a tractor salesman by trade, is living an unexceptional bourgeois life, with Esther he’s living a movie. The blue room is a hot heaven somewhere apart: his and Esther’s own personal adults-only cinema.
The film plays down Simenon’s emphasis, very much of its time and inescapably misogynistic, on the oppressive dullness of bourgeois life and the emasculating nature of marriage: Tony’s bloodless, joyless wife is replaced by Delphine, played by Léa Drucker as a tender, sympathetic, and seductive woman with whom you imagine Julien having a very different sex life, but a sex life nonetheless. Here, when she tenderly says good-night to him in bed, he nervously turns away and you sense that he’s as frightened of her as he is of Esther.
All these elements fall into place—but not entirely into place—in a narrative that, despite my earlier reference to flashbacks, could really be considered a single, frenzied present tense. That present is the retrieving and sorting of memories in Julien’s mind, during various interrogations that are all collapsed together into one continuous process.
Christophe Beaucarne’s photography is in 1:33, heightening the claustrophobia and emphasizing the dislocation of François Gédigier’s editing, as if we’re being presented with a series of flash cards: the briefest vignettes of action or information. Sometimes parallelisms jump out at us: a discarded red towel on a beach chiming with the red towel on a balcony, Esther’s signal that she’s up for an assignation. Sometimes the cutting messes with our sense of continuity: Gédigier cuts from a view of a beach hotel bedroom to what seems to be a reverse of someone walking in, but it turns out to be another room entirely. The effect is partly to place us in Julien’s head, but it’s not just a matter of psychological realism. The approach infuses The Blue Room with the heady spirit of a certain editing style that’s contemporaneous with Simenon’s book. One of the most exciting things about The Blue Room is that it celebrates the radical fragmentation of Alain Resnais’s 1963 film Muriel—a nostalgic blast for modernists, reminding us that, by and large, they don’t cut them like they used to.
What’s also daring about the film is that, by the end, we’re none the wiser about exactly what has taken place. Neither, it seems, is the hapless Julien—although there’s an extraordinary reaction from Amalric in the film’s concluding courtroom sequence, in which he gazes at a witness, and his wide eyes suggest that he has suddenly realized what’s at stake in his predicament. But, as in the book, nothing is certain: Julien is steeped in guilt, but is it for a crime he has committed, a crime he has been party to, or for having committed adultery, or for failing to see his adulterous passion all the way through? Julien’s face is at times electrified with shock, at times impassive, and Amalric’s finely judged reticence means that it’s never transparently readable; and the less demonstratively Julien responds to certain things, the more it’s held by observers as a sign of his guilt (echoes of Camus’s Meursault) and added to the stack of circumstantial evidence against him.
So, what’s actually happening here? (I’ve been careful to hold back on spoilers.) Only one person, apparently, knows for sure, and that’s Esther; she’s not saying, but her complicit smiles at a cornered Julien speak volumes. Stéphanie Cléau appears only briefly and intermittently, but she’s a revelation: when Esther is quizzed together with Julien, her proud, complicit smile at him, together with her plucked and penciled eyebrows, suggests the unbowed ferocity of an old-school femme fatale. A contemporary neo-modernist reworking of a 1964 story, with a vamp worthy of Forties film noir—that’s a whole history of crime-of-passion stories compressed into one tight, intense frame.