Mathieu Amalric is one of the best-known French actors working today, partly because he shows up everywhere. Highlights from the last few years of his career include roles in Alain Resnais’ “Wild Grass,” Arnaud Desplechin’s ”A Christmas Tale,” Roman Polanski’s ”Venus in Fur” and Julian Schnabel’s ”The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — not to mention a stint as a Bond villain in ”Quantum of Solace” and a bit part in Wes Anderson’s ”The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
In spite of such ubiquity, however, Amalric has managed to maintain a side career behind the camera over the years, starting with 1997’s ”Eat Your Soup.” His 2010 showbiz dramedy ”On Tour” was selected for competition at Cannes and ”The Blue Room” — which screened at New York Film Festival this week ahead of its limited theatrical release this Friday — was a hit at Cannes earlier this year.
While he only has a few credits as a filmmaker, ”The Blue Room” shows that his versatility isn’t limited to his performances. The taut erotic thriller, adapted from Georges Seminon’s novel, stars Amalric opposite his partner Stephanie Cleau, with whom he co-wrote the script.
In the tightly-wound 78 minute story, Amalric plays a troubled family man whose adulterous encounters with a seductive woman (Cleau) leads to a crime of passion that threatens the lives of his wife and children. ”The Blue Room” chronicles the dangerous extremes of love and lust with the air of an elegant noir. During its second half, as Amalric’s character contends with police interrogating him about a sudden death that results from his behavior, ”The Blue Room” grows increasingly claustrophobic. Shot in the classic 1:33 aspect ratio with a bright color scheme and a moody score, ”The Blue Room” is at once an unsettling psychological thriller and a poetic look at the extremes of desire. In town for his NYFF premiere, Amalric sat down with Indiewire to discuss his reasons for taking on the project as both actor and director in the middle of an ever-busy schedule.
”The Blue Room” is nothing like your previous films as a director. What motivated you to make this project now?
I would not have imagined doing a film like this. When I saw the film the other night [during New York Film Festival] at Alice Tully Hall, I hadn’t seen it or thought about it since May. God, it’s so tragic, so dark. Why did I do this? We all have multiple personalities. The fact that the film was done so quickly, in just one burst…I know why, but it’s too intimate, it’s my own stuff.
How did it compare to your other experiences as a director?
It was a very short shoot. Stephanie [Cleau] and I started to write on the 25th of February 2013, and we had to finish the script for the 15th of April, and then we shot two weeks in July and three weeks in November. Then it opened in May in France.
Was it a challenge to work around your other acting commitments?
Unfortunately, time never belongs to me anymore because of my life as an actor and all my friends who make these films. I’m acting so much. Tonight I have to take a plane back to France because tomorrow I’m on stage in Stephanie’s play [”Le moral des ménages”]. Last Friday, I was on stage. It will be like that until December 20. So time is not mine. So that’s maybe why these films are made so differently. It was just stolen moments, where I could just do something. Everything comes from the way it’s produced. My producer Paulo Branco made it clear to me that I had to shoot something. What can I shoot with a small budget? Georges Simenon’s book is so sensual from the first line — the way he notes smell, sound, light from the first line.
So you saw the book itself as cinematic.
It’s falsely cinematic. But the way we creates a climate is compelling. So I realized we could do it quick on a small budget: It had a plot — sex, blood, crime. Nothing personal, or so I thought. It’s a genre film that has nothing to do with me. That’s what I thought. Then when I saw the film last night…it’s such a terrible story, a man who’s in prison. So I must in prison somehow: afraid of sexuality or afraid of passion or afraid of taking risks.
Every element of the film feeds the story — the 1:33 aspect ratio, the color scheme, etc. How did you figure out these ingredients during the writing process?
The script was written in two columns. Stephanie started to do that — putting on one side what was onscreen and in the other, what was off-screen. Those voices that intrude almost violently on their intimacy. The magic and chemistry of two bodies in a room that should belong only to those two persons. But he has to put words on everything [during the interrogation process with the police] with one question after another. He’s putting words on what happened. Then the isolation of the character has nothing to do with harmony. Is it the present or is it memories? The classic ratio means you can show more of the body. When you shoot in 1:33, the camera is far from the actors. If you take the same lens in 1:85 you would be closer. So you’re only in his head. It’s horrible. He doesn’t know what his wife thinks; he can’t read who this mistress is.
What was your process for getting inside his headspace?
Well, it’s always good to be in the place where the character is. For instance, all the shots you have of the area behind where the cop [who’s interrogating Amalric’s character] is sitting — cables, computers. That comes from me trying to imagine what this character is living at the moment. His wife has been poisoned by his mistress — that’s what he thinks. So he’s guilty even if he hasn’t physically done anything. So what do you want him to do? All these people asking him questions. I have to shoot these other things in the room to show that he’s not listening to what they’re saying. Then you’re in the rhythm, the tempo of it. You fear it from the inside.
You’ve said before that you wanted the film to have the feel of an RKO production…
Well, let’s say that an RKO production seemed to be a good influence. It gave me courage to shoot quick, simple, straight and deal with passion, blood, crime.
The film has invited comparisons to Claude Chabrol movies…
I didn’t think at all of Chabrol. It was more like Truffaut’s ”The Woman Next Door,” that darkness. But these are just tools for the film that you’re doing. For this film, ”The Woman Next Door” was really helpful in the writing process to get rid of the parts of the novel that had to do with him whipping himself: ”It’s my fault, sexuality is ugly, I should’ve have done this, women are dangerous…” We didn’t like that. So we got rid of all that. ”The Woman Next Door” allowed us to get to a point where even if the man resists the situation, either way, they go there together — that’s the craziness of passion.
You must get asked this all the time: What’s the difference between directing yourself and acting in someone else’s movie?
It’s much more fun when there’s a director. You know, I never think about it because I have these filmmaker friends who are part of my life. It moves me so much that they want me to be a part of their world. So people like [Arnaud] Desplechin, [Roman] Polanski…it moves me. I’m attracted to directors. I was just on the set of Desplechin’s film last week. It’s the prequel to ”My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument,” about Paul Daedalus [the character played by Amalric in the original film] when he’s 11, 15 and 18. And sometimes you see him at my age. Desplechin is younger, freer now. It’s amazing what he’s doing.
My pleasure is trying to guess what directors are looking for, to be in the complicity of entering their world. I wouldn’t have seen the world without them — that’s the pleasure. But directing myself is just boring. However, there’s the crew. They’re my friends: the sound engineer, for example, plays the husband in the film. Olivier does all my films. Susanna, who’s Stephanie’s best friend, is the makeup artist. And then there’s the DP. Those are my friends.
So why cast yourself as the lead?
It was more practical that I do the male lead. After writing the script with Stephanie, it was easier, faster to cast myself than to find some other actor. But I had this problem: The character is from the countryside. Me, a guy from the countryside? In the book, in the sixties, he sells tractors. So I went scouting a little and people who sold tractors in the sixties were farmers who had succeeded. As the story was actualized and we set it in the present, OK, it’s a guy who left the countryside, went to the city, studied business, comes back and knows nothing about the soil or machines. He just knows computers and the stupidity of John Deere, banking…so I said, that I can do. That’s why I changed it. In fact, the place where we shot, there was a guy exactly like that. I modeled my character on him.
Olivier Assayas recently told us that French independent cinema has become ”extremely insular.” How do you feel about it now?
I don’t know. I have a feeling that criticizing your country’s cinema is an international sport. If you talk to Americans, they shit on their own cinema. ”It was better before, now it’s dead, money, etc.” Shit, the movies are still getting made. These things still exist. French people love to shit on each other: ”Everything is dead.” Movies are about mutation! I don’t ask myself these questions. It’s not true that it was better before. I don’t believe in that — I don’t want to believe in that, even if maybe it’s true.