Interview: Mathieu Amalric
Whereas Mathieu Amalric’s previous film, On Tour (10), was an open-hearted and free-wheeling story about a troupe of American burlesque performers and their devoted manager (Amalric), his latest, an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s The Blue Room, is a terse, elemental thriller of pent-up longing, infidelity and murder. Julien’s (Amalric) affair with the enigmatic and rangy Esther (Stéphanie Cléau, the film’s co-writer and Amalric’s partner) is told in slow drips of narrative information that reconstruct the central crime after the fact, while past and present tense are mixed up, trading off from one to the other scene by scene. The ornate presentation of how the events unfold keeps character motivation in question, throwing causality into disarray. This is further complicated by Amalric’s insistence on gestures and body language over psychology, nowhere more apparent than in Cléau’s portrayal of Esther: at once a femme fatale, a “woman in love,” and a living embodiment of Julien’s desire.
I was reminded of the first feature you directed and starred in, On Tour, which is such a loose, chaotic film. Zand looks so uncomfortable when he’s in the supermarket, or in the lobby, when he’s not participating in the show-business world. And there’s something similar with your character in The Blue Room where he’s awakened by the passion of the affair.
Yes, but it’s so tragic. I saw it yesterday night for the first time since Cannes, and it was like, “Ah, this is so dark. How could I make a film like that?” So I spent the time after the Q&A making jokes, like I was apologizing to the audience: “I’m sorry, I’m a funny guy. I don’t know what happened.” But, that’s what it is. We made it so quickly, so it must be subconscious. I know that Simenon is an author that really strikes you. Especially that book: the opening of it is so raw and so real, about how this miracle of chemistry between two bodies can put you in danger.
It’s like Julien spends the entire film reeling from that. In Simenon there’s this terrified sexual instability, a terror at longing. It’s something that can consume you from the inside out; the entire film is haunted by those opening scenes. Because you think as you go through life that you want that kind of fulfillment but, when you come across it, it’s like you’ve met a kind of death.
Yes. There is something like that, and he doesn’t admit it. Julien always tries to protect himself. The mistress doesn’t seem to protect herself at all, as if she’s only an innocent woman in love. It is possible that she’s innocent. Simenon doesn’t say anything more; he says less even than the film about that. But—like many men, you could say—Julien prefers to forget that, hide it under the carpet, and continue his life, because he put so much energy into the construction of his paradise: a brand new house, a self-made man. It’s very important that you feel that they don’t come from the same social background. And the silence of his wife. Those are the sorts of things that really drew me to adapt this text. Of course, it was really a pleasure to play with the genre, and think about what I love in the commissions of Golden Age Hollywood, where personalities had to be woven in slyly, hidden behind the police thriller, with suspense and who killed who.
And Simenon’s a master at that, just considering his own life.
Simenon is an author who shows what is common to all human beings—not what is specifically extraordinary with one character, who happens to be the hero. No, no, no—we are all the same, we are all in danger, and that’s why there’s a man who has to use words to explain what the judge already knows, the shrink knows, the cops know.
Even if they find out the facts of the case, there’s still something missing. There’s still something that will never be revealed.
Yes, which is reinforced by how the story is told upside-down. There are those voices saying, “Don’t you think she did it on purpose, biting you?” So you think this man is arrested because in the heat of passion he killed his mistress. But oh, no, it’s not that. So who died? I loved that. Stephanie and I wrote the script in two columns: onscreen and the offscreen. There’s the life that you live and life that you peel away afterwards, fragments of memory. And that’s how we came upon the aesthetic of still shots—pieces rather than harmony. It’s the same crew from On Tour, a movie about a man who accepts being part of a group. So there was something that seems…it was to hide the work in On Tour. With Christophe [Beaucarne, the DP], it had to do with “Chu, chu, chu” [chopping gesture with hands]…
The experience fragments him.
So the film becomes fragmented: it’s sharp, it’s jagged, the cuts don’t mesh together—they clash against each other.
And when you’re framing in the academy ratio, the viewer becomes very conscious of all of the negative space, because the body is very central.
I love the fact that you can have more of the body, and isolate things. Because when you shoot in 1:33, it’s much more…it’s far away. So, the actors are alone like that. Like on the beach, when his wife says, “What’s on your mind?”, they’re not in the same frame. It was an instinct, you know? You feel it and you try to read Simenon’s sentences again. Stephanie and I loved his sensual notation so much: about light, about smells, about sounds outside, the summer, the terrace with somebody who’s laughing, the bee on the belly. And then you try to invent other things with the bee that aren’t in the book. I mean, we didn’t invent this blue room with the bee…I would have never thought about that. But when I saw the location scouting photos, I said, “Where did you find that!?” Well, it does exist.
It’s like the room comes out of their imagination, out of their experience with one another.
Yeah. But I would have never thought to ask someone to repaint the courtroom in blue. In fact, it’s a Napoleon-troi paper that was green and became blue with time. And the bee is the symbol of Napoleon.
There’s a really striking shot of the two file cases on top of each other. One’s manila and one’s red. It’s like the facts of the crime are two different bodies.
Yes, and I put her on top of him.
And I also love the way the lettering is written: it’s kind of bloody, it seems scrawled, it’s messy.
Yes, because judges in France—and I think it’s the same here—hear hundreds of cases. They go by so quickly. That’s why you hear the judge on the phone, talking about another story. I love those things, you know? We have a hero, but in fact, a girl got raped somewhere? There are other stories.
It’s part of the core existential dilemma in the movie: there’s this one thing, and there’s so many other incidents that are ripping people apart just as much. And that really takes the air out of the room, when he takes that phone call. And there’s that half-beat, and then he says, “It’s all right.”
Yes, because that’s a moment where he feels that the guy is human. Simenon loved judges, he wrote a book that is very similar to The Blue Room 10 years before called Letter to My Judge. It’s incredible. But he hated defense lawyers, because he thought words were really bullshit for them. That’s why I invented this moment that’s not in the book where the judge takes his shirt off. And you can see this judge, with the clerk, and he puts on his shirt like Julien does after coming back home from being with his mistress. And those two scenes might unconsciously have a sort of resonance, without people thinking about it.
I’d be very interested to see a triple feature of Wild Grass , and Jimmy P. , and The Blue Room. I think they would play together nicely.
In regard to Resnais, I know that Je t’aime, je t’aime  helped me a lot because of memory. And freedom. What’s great about Resnais is that when you’re stuck, and you think of what you’re not allowed in movies, it’s complicated. But you just go and see a Resnais film and you’re like, “Oh! You’re allowed to do what you want in movies.”
And Je t’aime, je t’aime is such a dark movie about being with another person.
Yes, absolutely. In the novel, Julien’s whipping himself a lot, saying, “Sexuality is bad, I shouldn’t have done it.” Like women are witches, in fact. It had to do with how sexuality is…So Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door helped us a lot, because it’s a story of passion where they go there together, and Je t’aime, je t’aime, and then…for production reasons, things like Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall. I hadn’t seen that before and now I love it. The meeting in the café with Anne Bancroft: I love that scene. And then, the memories I have of Bresson. Those still shots of pieces of bodies, how they could be so sensual. That helped me sometimes.
There’s a capacity for expression that is more common for comedians that I think you bring to this film in your performance. Your performance and Stephanie Cléau’s performance are unlike anybody else’s in the movie. They’re unlike each other, too. But she’s like a sphinx: she’s unreadable.
She is unreadable. That was my attraction to her, the hot and the cold. You get crazy. You have two well-known actors in these roles. But the mistress is played with what I would call, “the threat of the unknown.” It could be Stephanie, because people will project their worst thoughts on her, like “Mmmm,” and at the same time, “Oh, too dangerous.” Of course it’s a game, because we have been together ten years and have a child together. I still don’t know who that woman is. And now I’m acting in her play—I’m touring as an actor in theater.
Did your experience directing her affect her experience directing you?
She went through this incredible thing while acting, especially naked. She’s so shy! She’s not at all like that. But then, those scenes…I know that gave her a lot of strength for the rehearsal of her play. How to speak with actors, she knows what it is now.