Mathieu Amalric’s Georges Simenon adaptation The Blue Room is a boxy, jumpy little movie that translates the doomed intensity of a small-town love affair into a jumbled puzzle-piece style. There’s a man named Julien (Amalric), a woman named Esther (co-writer Stéphanie Cléau), a hotel room—but also an examining magistrate, a group of policemen, and some court documents. At first, everything is shown in fragmented close-ups; some kind of crime has been committed, though it’s unclear who did what to whom and why. Julien is asked about his relationship with Esther’s husband, about the duration of the affair, about how many trysts they had in the hotel room. Slowly, pieces of a mystery start to emerge.
This oblique style is less evasive than immersive. Julien and Esther’s affair is first presented an an abstraction, as a series of disconnected images—closed doors, half-open windows, and unmade beds, followed by close-ups of bodies—accompanied by Grégoire Hetzel’s swelling string score. Left to connect the shots on their own, viewers are effectively trapped in the movie before they even know what it’s about. The disordered chronology provides The Blue Room with countless images of confinement and confusion—fog, prison bars, tangled branches—that seem all the more tantalizing because the circumstances and nature of the crime about which Julien is being questioned are withheld for so long.
Gradually, the rhythms of Julien’s life start to come through: his tractor business; his fancy post-modern house; his marriage to Delphine (Léa Drucker). The old-fashioned, squarish Academy aspect ratio contributes to the sense of claustrophobia; Julien often seems to be looking just out of frame, as though he were trying to see what exists outside of his little boxed-in world.
The Blue Room is a complete about-face from Amalric’s last theatrical feature, On Tour, a Neo-Burlesque riff on John Cassavetes’ The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie. Amalric—an actor whose fidgety, neurotic charm has made him one of the most distinctive presences in contemporary French cinema—has been making eccentric, under-the-radar films since the mid-’90s; The Blue Room represents his leanest, most morose, and most handsomely accomplished work, distinguished by enigmatic close-ups, lush orchestrations, and delicate lighting. It envelops the viewer in Julien’s headspace.