'The Blue Room' ('La Chambre bleue)': Cannes Review

The Blue Room Film Still - H 2014
Alfama Films

The Blue Room Film Still - H 2014

An impressive and impressionistic romantic thriller from one of France’s finest working actors.

Mathieu Amalric ("A Christmas Tale," "Quantum of Solace") directs and stars in this modern-day update of Belgian writer Georges Simenon's 1964 crime novel.

CANNES — While he’s mostly known abroad for playing neurotic Parisians in films like Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale and Kings and Queen, or for portraying the bug-eyed baddie in Quantum of Solace, French actor Mathieu Amalric has simultaneously carved out a career as an accomplished filmmaker with a handful of features that are as idiosyncratic as they are intriguing. If his last Cannes entry, On Tour, felt like a throwback to the loose-limbed '70s dramas of John Cassavetes and Robert Altman, his latest effort, The Blue Room (La Chambre bleue), takes a cue from both classic Hollywood noir and the time-shuffling narratives of the late Alain Resnais, telling a familiar story in ways that can feel compellingly new.

Adapted from the 1964 novel by potboiler maestro Georges Simenon, this tale of a married man who runs afoul of the law after an affair with a local femme fatale is marked by taut performances from Amalric and co-writer/star Stephanie Cleau, as well as superb camerawork from DP Christophe Beaucarne (Mr. Nobody), whose decision to shoot in the Academy format only serves to intensify the action. While this may be the actor-director’s most polished feature yet, it’s far from a traditional suspense movie and will play best on select art house circuits following an international premiere in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Beginning with a series of lushly romantic, semierotic scenes set in The Blue Room’s eponymous hotel chamber, we’re introduced to tractor salesman Julien (Amalric) and his mistress, Esther (Cleau), as they make love while the world goes on outside their window. But their intense trysts are soon interrupted by the questions of an examining magistrate, Diem (Laurent Poitrenaux), as the story jumps ahead in time to show Julien under arrest and getting the third degree from local authorities.

For the duration of the movie, Amalric will skip back and forth between past and present, courthouse and bedroom, fear and desire, as we are gradually given clues about what exactly went down between the star-crossed lovers, and how their affair impacted Julien’s already shaky marriage to housewife Delphine (Lea Drucker). While revealing too many plot points would spoil things, especially in a film that holds back much information until late in the game, suffice to say that the blood that drips on the bed sheets during the opening scene is telling of what’s to come.

After all, this is a Simenon story, and like Agatha Christie in the U.K. and Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett in the U.S., the Belgian crime writer has been the go-to guy for many a French noir, including Claude Chabrol’s Betty and Cedric Kahn’s Red Lights, not to mention various TV shows featuring the famous Commissaire Maigret.

Yet The Blue Room, which combines Simenon’s taste for mystery with his taste for sex (he once claimed to have slept with 10,000 women, most of them prostitutes), is less of a whodunit than an investigation of a man torn apart by lust -- a sentiment Amalric and editor Francois Gedigier aptly capture by returning time and again to the carnal beauty of the opening sequence, with Gregoire Hetzel’s swooning compositions accompanying the lovers in the manner of a 1940s or '50s melodrama.

Playing a darker version of characters he’s embodied in the work of Desplechin and other French auteurs, the director depicts Julien as a Kafkaesque hero whose guilt is forever in question, and who shifts between reality and memory in such a way that our perception of the story is forever changing. The narrative technique works well for most of the film, although the highly impressionistic third act offers up less of a white-knuckle denouement than a feeling that things were doomed from the start.

Alongside Amalric, Cleau -- in her second feature appearance -- is convincing as a tall and sensuous brunette with (literally) a taste for blood, though it’s not always easy to tell if Esther is downright evil or just madly in love. Drucker (star of Oscar-nominated short Just Before Losing Everything) is also strong as a suspecting spouse unable to communicate her feelings, while supporting actors Poitrenaux and Serge Bozon (another actor-director) play authority figures slowly tightening the noose around Julien.

Using a 1.33:1 aspect ratio to better focus on specific details (body parts, insects) that resurface throughout the film, cinematographer Beaucarne crafts a series of impeccably lit scenes that are at once real and fantasy-like, mimicking the workings of the suspect’s mind. No where is this clearer than in a starkly shot interlude where Julien, his wife and daughter enjoy a seaside holiday that grows increasingly sinister in a sequence of pure Simenon-style malaise.

Production companies: Alfama Films Production, Films(s), Arte France Cinema
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Lea Drucker, Stephanie Cleau, Laurent Poitrenaux, Serge Bozon
Director: Mathieu Amalric
Screenwriters: Mathieu Amalric, Stephanie Cleau, based on the novel by Georges Simenon
Producer: Paolo Branco
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Christophe Offret
Costume designer: Dorothee Guiraud
Editor: Francois Gedigier
Music: Gregoire Hetzel
Sales agent: Alfama Films

No rating, 75 minutes