French actor Mathieu Amalric directs himself — and a very able cast — in "The Blue Room," an adaptation of a Georges Simenon mystery about a man whose extramarital dalliance ends in a courtroom. The short but precision-tooled feature, presented in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes, suggests that maybe it’s time to finally start calling Amalric an actor-director.
Recently seen as part of the starry ensemble cast of Wes Anderson’s box-office smash "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Amalric will nonetheless be mostly identified by multiplex-goers as the bad guy from 007 entry "Quantum of Solace," while stateside arthouse patrons will know him from his cerebral turns in films from auteurs such as Arnaud Desplechin ("A Christmas Tale," the recent "Jimmy P" with Benicio Del Toro) and the late Alain Resnais, who cast him in two late-career films: "You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet" and "Wild Grass."
But Amalric’s parallel career as a filmmaker — one that each actor worth his or her salt in France will be almost forced to embark upon by some producer hoping to tempt the talent with the possibility to direct themselves in a role of their choosing — has been mostly overlooked so far, at least outside of France. The only possible exception is his 2010 film and starring vehicle "On Tour," which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and had the added marketing benefit of being about a group of voluptuous burlesque dancers.
While cinephiles are aware of Amalric’s range as an actor, he’s displaying an equally fearless and eclectic approach to his filmography as a director. If "On Tour" was a 1970s-infused drama with long, backstage-set takes that felt like cinematic swirls of docu-fiction, "The Blue Room," shot in the boxy Academy ratio, is a chamber drama in many ways, including literal ones.
Indeed, the eponymous room of the title refers to both the bleu-de-France hotel room where the married provincial tractor salesman Julien (Amalric) has sex with Esther (Stephanie Cleau), the local femme fatale, and the courtroom he finds himself in with Esther after things have gone haywire, they have a dead body on their hands and the police find out.
Instead of chronicling this rural, potential crime of passion mystery of sorts in chronological order, the film deconstructs the mystery and keeps cutting between the courthouse drama — which has bleu-de-France walls, too — and the goings-on that happened earlier and that the magistrates and lawyers ask Julien to go over with them again and again.
What impresses most in this modern-day update of the 1964 novel is Amalric’s total dedication to making the passion between Julien and Esther feel palpable, since the entire story hinges on their rapport. Casting Cleau, his real-life partner, in the femme fatale rather than the housewife role obviously helps, but even so it is quite remarkable to what extent their relationship feels not only vital but very carnal. Amalric achieves this not by featuring countless sex scenes (though there is plenty of nudity) but by looking at the couple just after the deed, when they are red-faced, exhausted, clammy and about to come back to their senses.
By emphasizing the transition from just after the climax to the afterglow and back to normal, the film suggests that committing a crime (also kept offscreen) is almost like having great sex; it requires passion and a total abandonment of the senses and it might take only a few minutes — but could have serious impact on the months or even years that follow.
In telling his story, Amalric is greatly aided by his ace cinematographer, Christophe Beaucarne, whose images pick up on a great many tiny but telling details, as if life were a mosaic composed of an almost infinite number of parts that are all equally important for the bigger picture. Case in point: There’s a scene in the hotel room in which a bee enters (it was a fly in the original novel), which is later visually evoked on the blue walls of the courtroom, which are decorated with bee motifs.
Like in most of the books by Simenon — who is often labelled the
French-language equivalent of Agatha Christie, though he has more in
common with psychologically more perceptive mystery writers like
Patricia Highsmith — there is death, crime and mystery, but what the
story is really about is the uncontrolled passion or passions of the
protagonists, as they are to blame for everything that happened; they
are the forces that drive "normal" people to do things "normal" people
A version of this review ran during the Cannes Film Festival. "The Blue Room" opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.