Mathieu Amalric’s film of Georges Simenon’s 1964 mystery novella The Blue Room is hard to fault. It is undeniably well made. The production values are top notch. The visuals are striking. Amalric’s choice of shooting the movie in the old Academy ratio of 1.33:1 — an affectation only made practical by the advent of digital projection — imbues the film with a sense of a 1940s film noir. The performances are fine. I really cannot find anything specifically wrong with the film in a strict sense — and I suspect it is exactly the film Amalric wanted. But I am left with a profound sense of “so what?” by the movie. Why tell this story? Oh, sure, it has all the elements of an erotic noir — including large doses of sex and nudity — but it somehow seems more clinical and uninvolved than erotic.
The idea of replacing the traditional whodunit nature of a mystery with one where the mystery is more of what was done probably sounds intriguing, but it really isn’t — at least it isn’t as executed here. You spend the whole movie — a brief 75 minutes — waiting for a payoff that just never really happens. The Blue Room seems almost indifferent to mood and character. Amalric is perhaps too in love with his formal approach, his psychological use of color and his apparent fascination with procedure to worry about providing much in the way of an entertaining story or characters in which we are apt to have much invested. By the end — apart from feeling like the story was awkwardly truncated — I didn’t care about these people and was only slightly more intrigued by who did what to whom. A little ambiguity is fine, but too much can generate indifference.
The story — told in a fragmented jigsaw of flashbacks — concerns Julien Gahyde (Amalric), a married upscale purveyor of agricultural equipment, who has become involved in an affair with married pharmacist Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau). They carry out their assignations in the blue hotel room of the title. While their sexual antics verge on the acrobatic, there’s a curious malaise to the situation — especially on Julien’s part. Esther seems more into the whole thing, but then the story is being told by Julien to a police interrogator, so he may not be entirely reliable. As he paints the situation, Esther comes across as a fairly stock femme fatale of the film noir school. But she also may or may not be mentally unbalanced — and quite capable of keeping up both ends of the relationship in her own mind. The question is whether or not this is the truth.
How you feel about this — to me — awkward blend of noir thriller and art house fare is open to question. Bear in mind, I am in the minority in finding The Blue Room a kind of formal success yet a dramatic drudge. Most critics buy into Amalric’s efforts more than I am able to do. Some critics — ones I respect and often agree with — find its ambiguity and arty fripperies very profound indeed. I wish I could join them. I’m only familiar with Amalric as an actor — his turn in Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur is one of my favorite performances of the year. This marks his fourth outing as a director — and the first to make it to our part of the world. It is undeniably interesting, but I cannot deny that it ultimately left me cold. You may well come away from it with a different take. Rated R for sexual content including graphic nudity.