The Blue Room is so lean and so taut, with so little fat on its bones, that it calls into question other movies that try to do similar things only take twice as long to do it. The Blue Room is 76 minutes long. It does everything it needs to do in that short amount of time. It creates a mood, it presents us with an entire world, it flies us around mosaic-fashion between the past and the present, and it does so with complete confidence. The Blue Room is an extremely stylish film, but every element of style (the carefully-chosen color scheme, the nearly-obsolete and boxy 1:33 aspect ratio, the framing, the music, the edits) is in service to the whole. Its precedents are clear. There’s some Hitchcock in there, some B-movie pulpiness and nastiness, some noir elements, and, of course, hovering over the whole thing are the films of Claude Chabrol. Director Mathieu Amalric (who adapted Georges Simenon’s book for the film, as well as takes the leading role) lets these influences inform his choices as a director. There’s a bold-ness to the look of the film: it’s flat and almost frozen. When the camera moves, you notice, because for the most part, the camera is still. It is an uninterested and objective camera, capturing a catastrophe at a crime scene. The Bernard-Hermann-inspired score by Grégoire Hetzel is magnificent. You don’t hear scores like that anymore. The style elements work ON you, the audience, as opposed to calling attention to themselves and distracting.
With all of this, what ends up emerging is the Story. That’s what Chabrol does like no other. That’s what B-movies were all about, too. The Blue Room is a gripping and strange film, a classic whodunit in many ways, with an undercurrent of pulsing psychological unease. The audience becomes a collaborator. The gaps in chronology, the gaps in explanation, makes us a part of the unfolding disaster. We are trying to evaluate what we see. We are trying to understand. These people are opaque. Unreadable. What went down here?
Amalric plays Julien Gahyde, a blue collar guy who has made a fortune for himself selling agricultural equipment. He is married to Delphine (Léa Drucker), and they have two children. They live in an isolated country house, modern, cold, nearly all glass. They are on display. And within, there is no warmth. It’s a showpiece, not a home. You ache for them to put some rugs down. There isn’t a point made, really, about class, but there is the sense that Julien and Delphine are new to having money, and they have created a perfect immaculate life for themselves, modern, sleek, and ostentatious, and yet somehow the heart has been left out of it.
When the film opens, Julien is deep in the midst of an affair with a local married pharmacist named Esther (Stéphanie Cléau). They meet at a hotel in a room painted deep blue. They are extremely indiscreet, especially considering that The Blue Room takes place in a small French town where everyone knows everyone (Shades of Chabrol).
The chronology is not linear. Immediately, as we see the passion of the adulterers, we also see a current-day police investigation starting. Someone has died. You don’t know who, and you don’t know for a long time. The film plays with you. You assume it must be the wife. But then maybe it was someone else. Or did Julien kill his mistress? Or his mistress’ husband? Or did she, the mistress, do away with someone? Were they in cahoots, murdering everyone in the way of their love? The film withholds. So as you see the affair start to blossom, you follow the methodical police investigation and the various interrogations of Julien.
The investigation is headed up by a magistrate (Laurent Poitrenaux). He questions Julien. As the investigation unfolds, we realize the magistrate has a file cabinet full of gossip from neighbors and colleagues and FedEx employees and casual encounters … all of whom saw what was going on, and give damning memories of this or that event. But memory is a strange thing. You are peeking at the full event through a mail slot. You can’t see the whole thing. It’s maddening.
I have a soft spot for French police procedurals. I can’t get enough. I love Chabrol, of course, but my love of this particular well-known character – a French police inspector investigating a case, was probably born out of my childhood adoration of Inspector Clouseau. Whatever the origin, there’s something extremely satisfying about the character, a smart and unsmiling French detective, or police inspector, or magistrate, going after the truth in a way that starts to seem inevitable and terrifying to those being investigated. We saw him in Le Samourai. We saw him in Z, too (although he’s supposed to be Greek, but he’s played by Jean-Louis Trintignant in an awesome performance, so I count him). The police inspector exists in Chabrol’s films, of course, as well. It’s the embodiment of the seemingly casual yet not at all casual “let’s just talk things over” scene in Crime and Punishment, when Raskolnikov realizes, to his horror, that the police have someone connected him to the crime. Poitrenaux inhabits that type in The Blue Room with great specificity and dedication. There’s a scene where he stands in his cluttered office, clearly having worked all night, and the rain pours against the window, and he stands there, looking out, slowly putting on a fresh shirt. He lives in his office. He lives and breathes his case.
Where is the smoking gun? The magistrate knows there IS a smoking gun in the pile of evidence somewhere, if he can just find it. The interrogation scenes are both tense and frightening as well as hugely entertaining.
The 1:33 aspect ratio creates a strangely static effect. There are many interiors: the blue room, the glass-windowed country house, the magistrate’s office. When the film goes outside, to the beach, for example, that aspect ratio suddenly seems confining, stark. The happy beach scene, colored umbrellas, beach blankets, waves, seems ominous. A flat photo of a world now vanished. It’s classic Hitchcock, pitting the happiness of a particular scene against the psycho-drama in the characters’ inner lives.
The sex shown is pretty graphic, but the framing is so objective and frozen that there is no eroticism in the encounters. The conversations they have exist as pillow-talk but as the film marches along, we realize that there have been vast misunderstandings based on casually intimate moments when two people are naked. Sex is an engine of chaos, that’s for sure. Julien and Esther are so opaque that there is no investment in their coupling. That is a deliberate choice. The film is not trying to immerse us in their passion. The film is not pleading their case for them. If anything, the film is on “the side” of the dogged police inspector who digs through the emails and the camera footage and the witness testimony to find out who did what to who.
It works beautifully. The adulterers meet in the woods, and suddenly the colors are warm and golden, greens, and yellows, and they embrace, the camera moving towards them. The camera has been so still that when it moves it’s alarming. It makes everything happening onscreen look wrong. That’s the magic of specific camera movements, that’s the magic of cinematography when used sparingly and well. Another film may have wanted you to get swept away in the affair, and then sucker-punch you later. The Blue Room tells you from the get-go, They should not be doing this.
Less specific, less bold directors think that by tipping your hand so early you risk lessening the tension. That is an error. Anyone who is familiar with noir knows that in those films, it is clear from the get-go that that dame, or that man, whoever they are, are bad news. And you lose nothing in terms of tension or thrills by stating that upfront. The Blue Room does not give us a Spider Woman or a clear femme fatale. The story here is an abyss of rumor and speculation, wrong-headed choices and misinterpretations with vast consequences, and we, like the magistrate, are only allowed to see bits and pieces.
The Blue Room is intensely satisfying on every level: story, character, mood, and style.
The Blue Room will also be playing at the London Film Festival in mid-October. Other release dates to be determined.