The Blue Room
Directed by Mathieu Amalric
This woozily terse potboiler, adapted from a 1963 Georges Simenon novel, begins with a kiss, or, perhaps more properly, a bite. Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau) has bitten Julien Gahyde, played by director Mathieu Amalric, on the mouth, drawing blood. Currently, the pair are carrying on an adulterous affair in the titular blue room in a provincial hotel in a state of damp, post-coital dishevelment. As the liaison plays out, Esther begins to ask a series of leading questions: “Could you really spend your life with me?”; “Can you imagine what our days will be like?”; “If I were free, could you free yourself, too?” Julien responds in a way that is both perfunctory and ill-conceived, absently giving Esther the answers he expects she wants, like he’s thinking with his dick, or maybe just not thinking at all.
It’s not really giving anything away to say that this will end badly. But part of the ingenuity of the movie lies in its fractured narrative structure, alternating between Julien’s memory of the affair and its aftermath and a series of interviews/interrogations conducted variously by a psychologist and a police detective. Clearly a violent crime has been committed—though what, exactly, we don’t yet know—and a quick cut to a view of Julien’s shoes, bereft of laces, reveals that he is the chief suspect. Whatever its nature, all the signs of the coming catastrophe begin with that predatory kiss, but they’re much easier to spot in retrospect. Like a lot of men, Julien is oblivious to what is right before his eyes, an ignorance that is paradoxically both willful and determined, and as events ineluctably unspool, the movie meditates on the implications of this paradox.
Like the best of Simenon’s novels, “The Blue Room” deals in the inscrutability of human motivations, and how we can never really know what leads us to commit impulsive or (self-)destructive acts. Amalric, perhaps best known to American moviegoers as the vaguely insalubrious-seeming Frenchman populating movies such as this year’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and 2005’s “Munich,” is the perfect Simenon dupe, wandering through his life as if events are happening to him rather than as a consequence of his actions. The movie’s claustrophobic framing (aided by Amalric and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne shooting the movie in 1.33:1 or “full frame”) underscores the sense that things are closing in on our main character from the start.
“The Blue Room” is concerned with the stubborn opacity of human motivations, but it is also a study in the ways that chronological perspective distorts our perception of events: how our lives unfold with a sense of inevitability, as though we are powerless in the sensory and emotional avalanche of the present. Our agency is only revealed through the mediation of memory. As the detective relentlessly hammers Julien on the fine details of his affair with Esther, Julien erupts in anxious exasperation, delivering the sort of profoundly obvious maxim at which the French seem peculiarly adept: “Life is different when you live it and when you go back over it after.”