The Blue Room, drama, rated R, in French with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles Georges Simenon, the Belgian crime novelist and creator of Inspector Maigret, was a prolific writer, turning out about a couple of hundred novels and numerous short stories. This adaptation of his novel The Blue Room (on which the author’s son served as associate producer) feels like a slender French paperback, its hour-and-15-minute running time drawing us forward through a shuffled narrative and fractured chronology so swiftly that by the time we figure out what’s going on, it’s over.
Mathieu Amalric ( The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Venus in Fur) has a hand in every corner of this tidy little film. He directed and co-wrote the script with Stéphanie Cléau, with whom he also co-stars. The movie opens in a hotel room, its walls the color promised in the title, where two lovers writhe in carnal embrace on a rumpled bed. An ominously crimson drop of blood falls on the white sheet; the woman has bitten the man’s lip in a spasm of passion.
These colors, red and blue, will continue to play significant parts throughout the film. Esther (Cléau), a married pharmacist, hangs out a red towel from her balcony to signal to Julien (Amalric), a married tractor salesman, when the coast is clear for them to meet in the blue hotel room where they pursue their affair. A red towel that Julien sees on the beach when on holiday with his wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker), and their child triggers some bizarre behavior. And in the endgame of the story, blue is the color that dominates the walls of the courtroom where fates are decided and justice, perhaps, is served.
The lovers’ scenes are lushly, boldly sensual, as naked bodies entwine, and Amalric does not shy away from showing body parts not often seen on-camera. It’s the craziness, the addictive drug of sexual passion that he’s setting up, a force that can make people act in ways that would be out of the question if they were in their right minds.
“If I were suddenly free, could you free yourself too?” Esther asks as they loll in postcoital embrace. Could he imagine them spending their lives together? He agrees that he could. But even here, he seems more a man caught in an undertow than a man driving his own destiny.
The structure of the movie bounces us back and forth between scenes of interrogation in the office of an investigating magistrate (a very good Laurent Poitrenaux) and chronologically random scenes drawn from Julien’s settled home life and the intoxicating beginnings of his affair with Esther. But for the longest time, we don’t know why he’s been hauled in by the law. We assume somebody’s been murdered, but who? How? Why? The specifics are teased out.
Julien sits numbly in the chair in the magistrate’s office and listens as passages of dialogue from his tryst with Esther in the blue room are read back to him, passages so complete and thorough that they would seem to have been transcribed from a tape recording of the encounter. But presumably they are the harvesting of his and Esther’s recollections in testimony taken down by a hardworking stenographer.
The effect of it all is a gradual dawning on Julien of what he has gotten himself into, and Amalric plays much of the movie with the stunned expression of a man who has been kicked by a mule. He’s effective, but in many ways the more interesting performance is the one delivered by Cléau, a writer and theater director who is Amalric’s real-life companion. Outside the scenes of sexual passion, she maintains a sweet serenity that never markedly changes, but as the story’s circumstances unfold, the effect of her demeanor on us, and on Julien, alters powerfully.
The Blue Room is less of a whodunit than a whathappened. As with any good murder mystery, there are clues scattered throughout — and by the time we reach the last part of this short, swift psychological thriller, we have a pretty good idea of what has transpired. It’s not a blockbuster final twist that sends us out of the theater muttering, but the cumulative sense of fate and circumstance that draws a man into a nightmare from which he gradually understands he will not wake up.
The movie is beautifully served by Christophe Beaucarne’s lovely, sometimes claustrophobic camerawork. It’s a cautionary tale, and one that, in the tradition of movies like Fatal Attraction, should serve as a deterrent to spouses flirting with the idea of succumbing to the temptations of extramarital flesh.
— Jonathan Richards