Real-life partners Mathieu Amalric and Stéphanie Cléau strip Georges Simenon’s short 1955 novel The Blue Room to its bare essentials — and we do mean bare — in their intimate, claustrophobic modern noir adaptation, which made its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival last week. In addition to being one of the world’s most talented actors, starring in such films as Kings and Queen, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, A Christmas Tale, and Venus in Fur, Amalric has directed several previous works, including On Tour, which earned him the Best Director prize at Cannes. In The Blue Room, Amalric plays Julien Gahyde, a successful agriculture equipment salesman whose passionate affair with a local pharmacist’s wife, Esther Despierre (Cléau, who cowrote the script with Amalric), appears to have ended in murder. The film opens with Grégoire Hetzel’s lush, sweeping music as the camera makes its way to a blue hotel room where Julien and Esther have just made love offscreen. “Did I hurt you?” she asks. “No,” he responds. “You’re angry,” she says. “No,” he repeats as she laughs and a drop of blood falls on a creamy white sheet. Only then do we see the naked, sweaty couple, whose lurid tale has been succinctly revealed by this highly stylized, beautifully orchestrated scene. Next we hear Julien being interrogated by a magistrate (Laurent Poitrenaux) about a suspicious death, and soon we see Julien in handcuffs in the police station. We don’t know exactly what crime he has been accused of, nor do we know the victim — it could be Julien’s wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker), Esther’s husband, Nicolas (Olivier Mauvezin), or maybe even Esther herself. But as director Amalric, cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, and editor François Gedigier cut between the past and the present, the details slowly unfold — although that doesn’t mean they ever become completely clear.
Amalric fills The Blue Room with bold splashes of color amid all the darkness and muted skin tones, from the red towel that signals Julien and Esther’s illicit rendezvous to Delphine’s blue bikini to the strikingly red hair of Nicolas’s mother (Véronique Alain) and the shiny green and yellow John Deere equipment he sells. Amalric and Cléau trim so much out of the original story that it too often feels overly cold and calculating, the manipulation too clear and obvious. The nudity also lacks subtlety; Amalric and Cléau might be comfortable with each other sans clothing, but it seems to be a bit of an obsession with Amalric the director. Nonetheless, The Blue Room, shot in the old-fashioned aspect ratio of 1:33 and running a mere seventy-six minutes, is a gripping yarn, a lurid tale of sex and murder, pain and passion, and femmes fatale, told from the point of view of a relatively quiet, reserved man who never thought his world could just fall apart like it does. With such plot elements as adultery and murder and even the presence of a young daughter (Mona Jaffart), the story cannot fail to call to mind French author Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel of provincial France and misplaced passion, Madame Bovary, but the near-echoes never become too loud, merely adding a somewhat puzzling flavor to the film, like a dream half remembered. Following its screenings earlier this week at the New York Film Festival, The Blue Room opens October 3 at the IFC Center.