Whodunwhat, Exactly? The cunning, cutting Blue Room leaves you guessing

Oct 30, 2014 at 4:00 am
Stéphanie Cléau,  in The Blue Room.
Stéphanie Cléau, in The Blue Room.

Mathieu Amalric's brisk, agreeably nasty thriller The Blue Room turns on a couple murders — or does it? — but rather than corpses, it's time and space and human connection that get most memorably diced, here. Working from Georges Simenon's '64 novel of a wrong man accused — or is he the right man? — co-writer/director/proudly nude star Amalric cuts everything to the quick: Most shots have the feel of still photos, the camera firmly planted and the actors not moving much, and the movie always hustles us to the next, back and forward in time, the effect part Resnais and part staccato Kodak slideshow.

The images often even suggest an album of Polaroids. Amalric and MVP director of photography Christophe Beaucarne composed in the comparatively cramped 1.33:1 ratio that baffles viewers who care more that the screen is filled than about what, precisely, fills it. This formalism is never mere trickery; instead, it ensures that our wrong-man hero — Amalric himself, persuasively horny and harried — feels at all times penned in, especially in recurring scenes of interrogation. It's almost a surprise that, as the evidence mounts against him, the black bordering the frame doesn't claim more of his world. Even the elegantly composed quickie that opens the film feels disjointed, like no matter how intense the coupling, nobody in his isolating France can claim to be coupled, no matter what hot fluids these lovers disgorge on each other. (The Blue Room is the rare film to acknowledge ejaculate as more than a clue for the lab team.)

The lovers are Julien (Amalric) and his mistress, Esther (Stéphanie Cléau, also Amalric's co-writer). Their sex is passionate, rigorous, even abstract. Amalric gives us singular details and moments, each never quite flowing directly into the next; like most of the movie, they're the memories of a man who can recall key flashes of time but not its breath-to-breath drift. The assignation is adulterous, of course, in the blue hotel room of the title, and it's interrupted by the approach of Esther's husband. "Where are you going?" Esther asks as Julien slips out, and the question is sad and funny and threatening all at once: Does she think he should stick around for a confrontation — that Julien, married and a father, will make this his real life? And what might she do if he doesn't?

What exactly she or he might have done gets slowly teased out as the film vaults from Julien's recollections to him flubbing through the cops' questioning. I've said nothing explicit about the crime he's accused of because the film itself doesn't, for quite some time — like Julien, we're left to sweat it, and like those cops we're left to wonder, as each exquisite slideshow shot reveals some new intricacy, just what he might be capable of.

The most traditionally suspenseful scene is one not in Simenon: Julien has called off the affair, and is grinding through family life despite the suspicions of his wife (Léa Drucker, movingly harrowed). She has recently hinted — by shattering a main course just before dinner — that she knows about Esther. Now she stands high up on a ladder, hanging a long ribbon of Christmas tinsel, balanced uncertainly over a two-tiered glass coffee table. From the floor, Julien seizes the tinsel strand and asks, rather too grimly, why she seems so mad at him. Will he tug? Is this the charge he's facing? If she falls, could the shards of glass possibly be as sharp and clear and cutting as the individual moments of this film?