Presenting a compelling argument about the dangers of lovers’ chit-chat in a state of post-coital distraction, Mathieu Amalric’s latest directorial outing “The Blue Room” marks the French actor/filmmaker’s return to Cannes (though to the Un Certain Regard section) after “On Tour,” his last film, surprised many by winning him the Best Director prize in 2010. “The Blue Room,” based on a novel by popular Belgian crime writer George Simenon, is a very different affair from the burlesque baubles of “On Tour,” though, working in a far more controlled, contained register, and delivering a film in which the intentional mood of claustrophobia sometimes feels more like unintentionally choked, strained filmmaking. It’s a meticulous and tightly coiled cautionary tale, but it’s hard to imagine any of its characters having life outside the narrow confines of its stagy plot, or the edges of its carefully composed frames.
It is also one of those stories that relies on its non-linear, non-chronological telling for a lot of its intrigue. Once it’s over (and at a slim 75-minute run time, that moment is never too far away) and you can unkink its knotty structure in your mind and lay it all out perfectly in line, it’s actually quite a straightforward procedural. Lazing after one of their afternoon trysts in the titular blue room in a local hotel, Julien (Amalric), father of one and farm machinery salesman whose marriage is in a state of genteel disrepair, answers his also-married mistress Esther’s (Stephanie Cleau, also co-writer) questions dreamily, inattentively but sweetly. So when her cajoling tones ask him if he’d be with her if they were both “suddenly free” he replies in the affirmative, and when she peeks a little into what that alternate future would be, he joins in, as though it were a little lovers’ game, like the way she mock-bites him during a kiss. But that bite draws blood, and what he took for sweet nothings take on a far sourer taste when a while later Esther’s husband suddenly dies.
Told as a series of cross-cuts between Julien being questioned in custody and flashbacks to the events leading up to the film’s various tragedies as seen from his point of view, for quite a while we’re not sure which of the film’s small central cast is still alive and which are dead. Just when something concrete is about to be revealed, we whip forward or backward in time, from the small bureaucrat’s office in which he’s interrogated, to a dreamy sequence of creamy thighs in rumpled bedsheets, or to cold-edged exchanges between him and his watchful wife Delphine (Lea Drucker) over breakfast. Small clues and red herrings are littered around—Delphine likes a particular homemade jam; Esther’s husband had a heart condition; Esther uses a red towel hanging on the balcony to signal her availability to meet Julien; Julien sees a similar towel on the beach and soon is play-acting at drowning Delphine in the sea. While it’s difficult to imagine what happens in between these moments—the practical conversations that have to happen between two people who live together and share a child, or Esther’s life outside of those few encounters in the blue room—the film is largely successful in making each of those scenes feel self-contained, polished as a bead, one that only makes real sense when strung together with the others in the right sequence.
A lot of the resonance the film has is down to its immaculate, pictorialist shotmaking from DP Christophe Beaucarne. Light streams through shutters onto bare skin (there’s an often-repeated memory of Esther’s pubic mound being carelessly displayed as she shifts from one side to the other), and colors are deep and bold: the blue of the hotel room’s walls, and then of the courtroom; the red of the towel and of blood; the sudden, Patricia Highsmith-esque sunny noir tinge to the family trip to the seaside, all bright sand and blue sea and sinister undercurrents.
But outside of these almost theatrical, chamber-music set ups, the film fails to create any real sense of the larger world—the townspeople, Julien’s colleagues and clients, the interrogator, the judge—are all faces that sometimes swim to the surface like in a fever dream, but never have any real depth or function save to further the plot’s inexorable unraveling. And somehow the elegance of the set design and the crisp edge to the striking photography occasionally work to increase this sense of constructedness, of artificiality and airlessness.
It’s a film very much about the destructive potential of lust and sexual obsession, but it feels almost too tidy and clean and tasteful for that. The small-town, James M. Cain-ish setting with characters running a rural pharmacy and selling tractors—hardly the most glamorous of jobs—seems at odds with the constipated artistry on display, and we’d have cheered for a little more lurid “Postman Always Rings Twice”-style seediness. As it is, we’re held a remove from the film, that plays out like an elegant thought experiment and a series of studiously careful, premeditated directorial choices. Well-acted (especially by Amalric who is extremely compelling), beautifully shot and unimpeachably crafted, it’s a graceful rendering of a nasty little story that could have benefited from a little more formal nastiness too. [B-]