Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 26, 2014 10:42 am 
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A chilly, claustrophobic Simenon adaptation

The French actor Mathieu Amalric is so busy, active, and good (with 92 current thespian credits) it's hard to see why he even bothers to try his hand at directing, but his (reportedly) pretty faithful adaptation of the eponymous Georges Simenon short crime novel is his fourth time as réalisateur. And while his previous, On Tour/La tournée (2011) was a big long blowsy ensemble piece The Blue Room/La chambre bleu is as tight and economical as you could imagine. And it has pleasures, in its claustrophobic 1.33:1 aspect ratio images shot brightly with a fine eye for composition by Christophe Beaucarne; in its sometimes Bernard Hermann-esque use of Ravel in Gregoire Hetzel's movie music; in the clinical precision of the fussy investigating magistrate/juge d'instruction -- because this is a crime, in fact a murder, story -- played with pale obsessiveness by Laurent Poitrenaux. But in this short 76-minute quickie production (shot in three weeks, with the director costarring) there's the feel of a rapid exercise by a crack crew who, however, could just as well have been doing something else. Despite the neatness and elegance -- and in its way this is a brilliant shattered-mirror puzzle-piece -- something gets lost: what's meant to be an erotic thriller with strong sexual and emotional content comes out in Amalric's version as fragmented set of memories intercut with a police procedural. The two are neatly intertwined. But the film is uninvolving in the stingy way it unreels its mysteries.

If it ever does: one may walk out wondering what actually happens. Amalric pares down the story to action elements and the wild passion gets lost. As Guy Lodge puts it in his Variety review, Amalric has adapted "Georges Simenon’s slender mystery novella with fidelity to its bleak narrative but indifference to its disquieting erotic and psychological subtext." The effect, despite a crack crew at work on the film, feels chilly and academic, though in its French release Blue Room got excellent reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.9).

What does happen? We begin with a pair of childhood friends who've been suddenly reunited as adulterous lovers, Julien Gahyde (Amaric), a married local businessman involved with agricultural equipment, and Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau), wife of a pharmacist who's not at all well. When they're seen early on in the titular Blue Room of a travelers' hotel that's the site of their several months of trysts (only briefly shown), she says something telling to him: "If I were suddenly free, could you free yourself too?" He's typically noncommittal, but obviously not only Esther's pharmacist husband but Julien's wife Delphine (Léa Drucker) is in the way of their love (if he cares).

We get it. But from then on, in the busy account via memories and elaborately documented questioning by the examining magistrate, it gradually emerges what happened, except that Esther and Julien are rarely seen together again except wearing handcuffs, and Julien hardly says anything. Did he do anything, and if so does he know what he did? Definite possibilities only emerge toward the end, though it's soon clear Stéphanie is suspected of poisoning her husband while the town doctor is away and making it look like heart failure. As Guy Lodge points out, in general the setting is updated, but some elements from the 1964 book, notably the crucial role played by letters, are out of sync with today.

The Blue Room/La Chambre bleue, 76 mins., debuted at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard category. French theatrical release the next day 17 May 2014 with fine reviews, as noted. Various other festivals, including the 52nd New York Film Festival, as part of which it was screened for this review. US release 3 October.


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