New York Film Festival 2014: The Blue Room; directed by Mathieu Amalric

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

New York Film Festival screening schedule here.

The Blue Room will also be playing at the London Film Festival in mid-October. Other release dates to be determined.

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Happy Birthday, Ray Charles

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Survivor’s Remorse, Premiering October 4

My cousin Mike is the creator/producer/writer/grand pooh-bah of the new show Survivor’s Remorse, premiering on October 4th on Starz. It got a great review already from Hank Steuver in The Washington Post.

Steuver writes:

Somewhat reminiscent of “Entourage,” “Survivor’s Remorse” is less about what happens on the court than what happens in the everyday life of a celebrity in over his head. Cam feels guilty about all the friends and neighbors from his childhood who still live in poverty, even as his greedy family urges him to let go of the past and revel in the present. The cast is terrific, and some of the lines are screamingly funny, but there’s also an empathetic, moral undercurrent to the story – the usual cautionary tale about having all your dreams come true.

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Close Readings: A QA with Greil Marcus About The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll In Ten Songs

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Greil Marcus’ latest book is The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, a non-chronologically-ordered eccentric book, focusing on 10 songs that Marcus has chosen for his own reasons (reasons which he went into in the QA below). Part of the fun of the book is removing the demands of chronology, prioritizing emotion and association. How do songs speak to the singers that sing them? Marcus also highlights a lot of pairings, a song covered by two separate artists, and how those different versions inform and reflect and disagree with one another.

This past week, my pal Charles Taylor hosted a QA with Greil Marcus at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute as part of their “Close Readings” series, narrowing the focus on one or two passages from the book, those dealing with Cyndi Lauper and The Beatles. But of course in order to discuss those artists you also need to discuss The Clash and Buddy Holly and a host of others, everyone crowding onto the stage at the same time, which, I suppose, is one of Marcus’ ultimate points.

The event was held at the Journalism Institute, with a small stage, two chairs, and a bunch of folding chairs for the audience. The audience members were primarily students at the school, faculty, and a couple of interlopers like myself. Charles Taylor is an incredible writer himself (film, books, music), and Mr. Marcus, naturally, needs no introduction. He’s a great and entertaining story-teller and it was fun because I know all of these songs, but he made me want to listen to them again immediately. I listened to Bo Diddley all the way home. It was a special evening, gracefully run by Charlie, and I was really happy to be there. I’ve been reading Greil Marcus’ stuff since I was 15, 14 years old. He’s wonderful in person. The best part is is that it’s not so much about getting such lists right, because that would be an impossibility anyway. Marcus writes from his own taste, experience, and his own “close readings” of the songs he loves. There are things to discuss, and I think there may be more satire/humor in The Beatles’ version of “Money” than he seems to feel is there, but again, it was a great and thought-provoking discussion. Music. Let it live and breathe.

Here are some snippets from Charles’ QA with Greil Marcus, as well as some audience questions. I tracked down as many clips as I could.

Enjoy!

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Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014)

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I haven’t hated a movie in a long time.

My review of “Hector and the Search for Happiness” is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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His Name Was Rico. He Wore a Diamond.

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The ATM at the Copacabana, 47th Street, New York, NY.

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Swim Little Fish Swim (2014)

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Swim Little Fish Swim is a first feature. Sweet, slight, but confused. I think the message I took from it was not the one intended.

My review of Swim Little Fish Swim is up at The Dissolve.

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The Guest (2014)

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Super fun. Highly recommended.

My review of The Guest is up at Rogerebert.com.

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A Fingerprint

I came home the other night and opened my mailbox. There was a big envelope there, with my name written on it. No return address. But I recognized the handwriting immediately. From an old old flame of mine, a major old flame, who burned up my late 20s and early 30s. That makes him sound horrible and destructive. He wasn’t. The love going on there was … almost addictive. Or totally addictive. We were addicted to each other and the detox process took forever. There were moments of ESP and even a creepy Mr.-Rochester-calling-out-to-Jane-Eyre-across-the-space-time-continuum moment, when we were in different cities. It probably wasn’t healthy, but that was Love, I guess. When I moved to New York, he still lived in the Midwest, and we wrote each other letters. Long chatty letters. The “thing” between us was done but there was still so much we had to tell each other. Funny stories from the day, what we were working on, stuff like that. There was no email. Or, there was, but neither of us had it yet. Looking back, maybe we shouldn’t have been corresponding. It didn’t keep me hanging on or anything like that. There was nothing manipulative going on. It was just two people who got so much out of our interaction that we had to keep it going. Who will I talk to about the things I could only talk to about with him? And they were dumb things – like: “Holy shit, Leslie Van Houten is up for parole again, have you heard?” Or “I have got to tell you that I am now OBSESSED with early Bee Gees …” You know. Stuff that only he or I would “get”, or that’s what it felt like. So the letters flew back and forth until, at one point, or at many points, I can’t really remember, we stopped. Time to move on. It took us forever to let go. The last time I had a letter from him was, 10 years ago, or something?

I haven’t spoken to him since 2010. There was a prickly interaction over text back then. I wasn’t doing well and he strolled into the middle of it, unknowingly. I handed him his HAT. He must have felt blindsided. We don’t always do our best in life. I mean, he and I are going on 20 years of knowing each other. Or, no, it’s been longer than that. Damn, I’m old. From the first moment we met, there was a recognition thing going on. Like babies reaching out to each other from separate carts in the grocery store; “Oh. You. You’re like me.” That has not changed.

So I opened the mailbox and saw his handwriting.

Knew it instantly. After all these years. Instantly. Said to myself, even with no return address, “This is from him.”

It was a chatty conversational hand-written letter. It made me feel happy. He is doing well. He is happy I am doing well.

But what struck me was the handwriting. I know the handwriting of all of my friends in grade school and high school. To this day. I could pick my friend Jackie’s handwriting out of a lineup. My friend Kate. All of my siblings. Because I grew up in the day when you wrote letters to each other. When you got to know stuff like that. I joked with my friend Kate that I needed to lie on my side to read her writing, because it is so slanted. Getting letters has gone the way of many other precious things. I haven’t received a personal letter in years.

There is something precious and personal contained IN someone’s handwriting, regardless of the words that are written. It is someone’s essence, who they are, it emanates off the page in a way that can’t be translated via email. When I used to receive letters all the time, I didn’t experience it that way because letters were common. But now, looking at type all day long, communicating with my friends and family ONLY by email or text … I felt this rush of personal-ness, in reading his letter. It felt like he was right there in the room.

Getting that letter made me miss getting letters, and sent me on a little tailspin imagining the handwriting of my friend Kate, my friend Beth or Betsy, my siblings, my father. Each one … unique. THEM.

His handwriting is a fingerprint. It says: “Him. And him only.”

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Happy Birthday, Hank Williams

“He came to Nashville and he just set this whole world on fire. He was the first one to go to Las Vegas as a country singer, he was the first one in a major hotel in New York City to work. He opened a lot of doors for us. Of course he closed a lot of them for us later on in his career when he really got into trouble with his boozing and his personal life and all. When Hank got into his own personal problems later on, it completely ruined him, in a way, in the industry. It didn’t ruin the love that people had for him but it hurt him from the booking – bookers wouldn’t take chances on him because they knew if they booked him they might have an auditorium full and Hank, 1 time out of 10, might show up. He was in so much trouble personally. They had made an addict of him anyway when he fell off that horse and hurt his back and they gave him morphine. So Hank suffered. I know I’ve seen him on the floor on his back, tears running out of his eyes it was hurting so bad. It’s a sad thing. People that don’t know say, ‘Oh, he died a dope addict.’ Well, that ain’t really true. He died a sick man.”
– Faron Young, singer/songwriter

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