Crimes and Misdemeanors: Mathieu Amalric’s "The Blue Room"

A look at French actor and director Mathieu Amalric's adaptation of Georges Simenon's thriller—exclusively playing on MUBI.
Michael Pattison

MUBI is exclusively showing Mathieu Amalric's The Blue Room (2014) in the United Kingdom from September 25 - October 24, 2016. 

“If he has one consistent trait as a novelist it is his tendency to regard women, or Woman, at least, as a terrifying phenomenon, a demon ranging in a kind of erotic fury through the world of men, at once irresistible and destructive.”

—John Banville on Georges Simenon

“It was true. At that time, everything was true, for he was living in the moment, without questioning anything, without trying to understand, without suspecting that one day he would need to understand.”

  —Georges Simenon, The Blue Room

It came and it went. I confess I’d forgotten all about The Blue Room. On second thought, I’m not sure I even knew of it in the first place. When the film appeared on MUBI, as part of a short season of films made by or starring Mathieu Amalric, I presumed it was a new release. In a sense, of course, it is—the film came to a limited number of UK cinemas on 9 September 2016—but in fact, Amalric’s second feature as writer-director, following On Tour in 2010, debuted in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2014.

All of this—confessions, misremembrances, an object slipping the net—is highly appropriate. Adapted from Georges Simenon’s 1964 novel, The Blue Room is a mystery whose stakes are withheld nearly as long as its resolution. Never mind who did it: what happened? 

Amalric is Julien Gahyde (in the book it’s Tony Falcone), a farm-machinery rep whose illicit affair with childhood pal Esther Despierre (in the book, Andrée, played here by co-scriptwriter Stéphanie Cléau) may or may not be known to his wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker). Julien and Esther’s passionate fling takes place in a hotel suite of pastel blue and fleshy hues: emotionally liberating, it’s also plain. Blood from a bitten lip is normalized: damage from a dream. Or rather was: we learn quickly that this is a story remembered, fictionalized, gilded. Dreadful events have brought Julien under suspicion: to a nameless gendarme (Serge Bozon), he patches together what he can of a narrative he can’t quite comprehend.

Unfolding simultaneously across two timeframes—that leading to a double death, and subsequent judicial interrogations—the film moves centrifugally, through rooms and memories of rooms, without granting access to anyone’s deeper thoughts or, crucially, to the incriminating actions around which everything pivots. The Blue Room is a murder mystery without a murder, an anti-thriller operating on tenuous testimonies. The film opens on an empty corridor, a hotel hallway, and ends with a verdict of guilty and two life sentences. Mere talk: here, action is verbal and it only deepens the inscrutability of events. I miss films like this. 

By all accounts, The Blue Room is a modest picture. In a critical-cinephilic age increasingly fixated on bloated (and serial) storytelling, it’s also a minor one: it lasts 76 minutes, eschews thematic profundity, is content with both its taut mechanisms and trim finish. These are anachronisms: one can more readily imagine the film as a reissue, a forgotten noir, a no-nonsense B-movie made when its source novel was first published. Writing on Simenon when Penguin reprinted The Blue Room in March last year, John Banville noted: “Not for him the prolixity of Joyce or the exquisite nuances of Henry James.” Said paperback runs to 160 pages.

Amalric takes to the challenge of adapting this unfashionably lean story with an impressive control and acute awareness of its architectonics and recurrent color schemes (sunlit beige, office blue). His directing is sharp and surgical: compositions are claustrophobic without being abstract, scenes are terse without becoming fragments. Small details—creating what Barthes called the reality effect—ground the non-action: take a moment such as that in which Bozon’s magistrate is thrown a pitying look by his amanuensis, when the latter realizes he’s been sleeping overnight in his own office. Such flourishes are entirely keeping with Simenon’s economic style, the way his characters breathed a life beyond the slim wordcount afforded them.

Amalric matches his directorial approach with an equally unpretentious performance. At 5’6”, he looks less like a Bond villain driven by megalomaniacal overcompensation than an ordinary family man already undone. (In the novel, Tony’s previous romantic indifference to Andrée was due, in part, to her being taller than him.) 

Other than Quantum of Solace (2008), in which he appears as 007’s diminutive nemesis Dominic Greene, the Frenchman is still perhaps best known to international audiences for an extremely different film. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), in which he plays Jean-Dominique Bauby, the Elle editor who was left paralyzed by locked-in syndrome following a stroke, Amalric conveys the whole gamut of human emotions with little else other than his left eye. The oracular intensity of that performance is in evidence again here: bodily stiff but believably incredulous, Amalric’s ink-black eyes suggest a man drifting, as in a fugue state, into the realization that he’s wrongly implicated in a heinous crime.

Ambiguities are sustained—until the end. As he and Esther are escorted from the courtroom, the terrible ramifications of their ostensibly straightforward infidelity come tumbling down on Julien in painfully slow motion. Amalric’s direction, however, never falters: the room empties out, abruptly, and the knotted stitching unravels, revealing a frighteningly linear causal thread. Crime, then punishment. Blink and you’ll miss: they make them, infrequently, like they used to.

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