Oct 1, 2014

The Blue Room: NYFF 14

Actor Matthieu Amalric directs and stars as Julien Gahyde in this adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel about an amour fou between a couple of lovers whose spouses are in the way. His wife, Stephanie Cleau, cowrote the script with him and stars as his lover, so it's all en famille.
The story jumps in time from their lovemaking sessions at a small village hotel to Julien's arrest and subsequent interrogations by the police, a judge and a psychiatrist. We don't know who killed who, but the story unspools as Gahyde is forced to articulate his actions to the investigators by going back in time for clues to the murders that came out of his affair. It's a great premise: a sexual passion so intense, it drives two married people to want to off their spouses, with the twist that Simenon keeps you wondering who the hell did what. And more importantly, what exactly was the emotional turn that precipitated thoughts of romantic freedom into plans for murder. We don't know if Julien did it, or if he was framed by Esther his lover. We never see them scheming, we only glimpse the fallout.
To judge from the adaptation, which I assume is faithful, Simenon treats the story as a procedural, making us glean information in bits and pieces. My favorite scene is when the police bear down on Julien asking him incredibly intimate questions, demanding he translate his doomed infatuation into a collection of hard facts. He bristles that life is not like that when you are living it. The insight is that you don't necessarily know what you are doing in the moment. You may find yourself committed to a plan you didn't even realize you hatched.
Human motivation is the main interest of the noir genre. Why do we do the dark things we do? A good noir does not want to answer this question neatly. It wants to create lingering curiosity about the darkest corners of our souls. But all good noirs also require precision and style, and I found these to be missing from The Blue Room.  Amalric is a competent director, but this story, and noirs in general, beg for someone with a strong visual style and a commitment to the precision of plot. I like to be kept guessing, but I have to confess that by the end it was unclear to me whodunit. I am not even sure if this is intentional on the part of Simenon or the filmmakers. Although one doesn't necessarily need everything neatly tied up by the end, lack of clarity is not the same as mystery.
Amalric wants to convey a sense of claustrophobia, of the world crashing on the character. To pay homage to the RKO classic film noirs, he uses the old 1:33 aspect ratio and a lush, romantic music score, but he does not use an equivalent visual style, and the movie feels visually poor. The talkiness and all the jumping back and forth, although mostly clear, make the movie feel like a slog.
I have seen two French films so far at the New York Film Festival and they both suffer from this attention to meta details (in this case, aspect ratio, lush score, homages to Bresson, references to Gustave Courbet, etc.) at the expense of a careful handling of the story. It's as if the filmmakers are more interested in telling us about themselves, when they should be at the service of the story. Amalric, who is usually a riveting actor, seems unfocussed in the role of Julien. Perhaps he bit more than he could chew. The Blue Room is worth seeing because it's always good to go down the shadowy lanes of film noir, but it is not as sharp or as shadowy as it deserves to be.

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