I’ve only ever noticed Mathieu Amalric as an actor. I had no idea he could direct, and what an introduction to his directing is The Blue Room (La chambre bleue)! What first strikes the viewer is the gorgeous work of cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne and set design by Christophe Offret. The framing is sometimes ideally symmetrical or fractured by strategic placement of foreground. Colors are either vibrant or obscured by shadow. These visuals carry an important weight because it will be hard to trust what anyone in this movie says. This is a murder-mystery, after all, and even though police detectives have caught their suspects at the start of the film, what actually happened will remain a mystery until the movie’s still intriguing finale.
Based on Georges Simenon’s 1955 novel, a book that reads like a puzzle gradually coming together and into focus, Amalric co-wrote the script with co-star Stéphanie Cléau with great respect to the work both literally and figuratively. The recurring image of a woman’s legs opening to reveal a glistening pubic bush half-covered in shadow is lifted right from the book. Oh, the trouble that lies within. But the story takes on another quality as a movie. It’s a fractured mirror inviting the viewer to both judge these people and sympathize with them, as the film takes a while to arrive at any sense that a horrific crime was committed.
The director/actor plays the lead role of adulterous husband Julien Gahyde married with a young daughter to the quietly suspicious but repressed Delphine (Léa Drucker). We meet him in the afterglow of sex with Esther Despierre (Cléau). She’s the wife of his family’s pharmacist. Julien seems both nervous and excited by the liaison. But this is only a memory. In fact, the film seems filled and informed by the haze of memory. At a curt 76 minutes in run time, the movie is best thought of as a series of vignettes reflected on from the trial. Hidden in the edits could lie the truth. “Life is different when you live it and when you look back on it after,” Julien tells a magistrate early in the film during questioning.
Visually, blocking and vertical lines fracture many images, reflecting half-remembered situations. There are many windows, passages, doorways that represent obscured and maybe not completely honest memories. Presented in the 4:3 academy aspect ratio, which speaks to the influence of early mystery masters like Hitchcock and Chabrol, masters in the game of perception, the film’s framing also creates a window in and of itself. The movie is filled with many a lush image loaded with probable meaning. The score by Grégoire Hetzel is often overwrought and steeped in nostalgia. Strings swell and woodwinds modulate from wispy to soaring. It’s a bit over-the-top, but it’s by design.
Not only does Amalric show an incredible eye for beautiful staged images. He has pacing down to a brisk clip, and his interpretation of the source material is brilliant in how it embraces mystery and suspense giving no sign of relief but also no solid answers. The Blue Room is a baroque thriller that presents more than an answer to whodunit but offers the questions and stories in layers of tantalizing teases toward a subtle reveal that speaks more to the notion of judging people than any ultimate, definitive truth.
In some ways, the movie has a kinship with Gone Girl (‘Gone Girl’ examines perceptions we make with stories we tell — a film review). Like Fincher, Amalric prepares the viewer early on for the film’s unique quality. In the titular bedroom, Esther bites Julian on the lip, drawing blood. “Will your wife ask you questions?” she asks Julien. During his recounting of this incident to the magistrate, Julien is asked, “Could she have bitten you on purpose?” This is a film that says more in its questions than it does in any of its scenarios, so Amalric prepares the audience quite nicely to play interpreter and judge. Questions can only lead you so far, but they can also lead to great post-movie conversations, and many viewers will not always come away with an exactly similar viewing, as the film also features blink-and-you-might-miss-them behavioral reveals that will maintain the film’s intrigue long after the house lights go up. The Blue Room is an exquisite movie made for the dark chamber of the movie house.
The Blue Room runs 76 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (but expect violence and frontal nudity). It opens this Friday, Oct. 17, in the Miami area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It then expands the following week, on Friday, Oct. 24, at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus. IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It began screening across the U.S. on Oct. 3, so it may already be screening at your location, check local listings.