Chopped suey: The Blue Room

Saucer-eyed and furtive, Mathieu Amalric is an excellent camera object. His okay directorial debut The Blue Room shows more debt to the shattered glass approach to chronology evinced by Alain Robbes-Grillet than the sardonic Georges Simenon novel on which it’s based, but the movie is sardonic and short too. This story about an adulterous couple accused of murdering the other’s spouse unfolds in intriguing semaphore until a boring trial sequence.

Amalric doesn’t stint on violence. Quick shots of a string of pearls and beads of sweat begin the movie. Off camera Esther (Stéphanie Cléau) asks, “Did I hurt you?” Although Julien (Amalric) says no, the question will gain resonance. A drop of blood, shown in closeup, stains the sheet. It’s not what you think: Julien did get hurt. Inflicting pain on the wife (Léa Drucker) and daughter is not on his mind. Amalric’s crosscutting underline how splashing in the green-dark Mediterranean and writhing on the bed with Esther are equally essential. Then scenes in which a deskbound judge interrogates a recently unhandcuffed Julien about a murder get interwoven, first tentatively but with increasing frequency. Esther’s ill pharmacist husband, the audience learns, is dead. The tropes of crime TV appear: forensic questions, the quiet politeness to the suspect, the murmuring lawyer.

I saw only one howler in The Blue Room: a cut from a closeup of Esther’s vagina to Julien’s daughter. An exercise in swank economy, The Blue Room is the kind of movie hard to screw up. It’s content to stay on the surface, registering as nothing more or less than an adaptation of Simenon. Had Claude Chabrol directed it, I would have gotten more than hints of malice; he would have used the malice as the means to delineate Julien and Esther’s sexual relationship. From his editing and compositional decisions I don’t know what Amalric thinks of the pair’s culpability. I do know what his composer thinks. Scoring Julien and Esther’s first woodland tryst, Grégoire Hetzel blasts them with so many lush passages that the squirrels and birds fall out of the trees. Complicity? Inevitability? Both? The Blue Room gets points for concision, and indeed, it puts a monstrosity like Gone Girl (also an adaptation of a best seller) to shame. David Thomson, also making the comparison, reviewed them the same week. He liked The Blue Room more than I did. Concision suggests lacuna. So do flourishes — any flourish.

The Blue Room is available on disc or for streaming on Netflix.

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