At the movies, infidelity usually doesn’t turn out well. Whether in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct or Unfaithful, affairs possess an intoxicating thrill initially, but then everything goes to hell: relationships are destroyed, lives are shattered, the pet bunny gets it. So there should be little surprise that the French mystery The Blue Room, which concerns two married people involved in an illicit tryst, won’t find its way to a happy ending. But the mood it conjures up is nonetheless arresting. We don’t learn anything new about infidelity’s destructive, alluring power, but we’re reminded all over again in forceful fashion.
The movie, based on a Georges Simenon novel, has been adapted by director/cowriter/star Mathieu Amalric. The Blue Room opens with blood dripping from the lip of Amalric’s character, Julien, who’s just been bitten by his lover, Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), while in bed. The blood is a portentous but potent warning of what’s to come. The affair has gone on for a few months—long enough for a bond to form but not so long that the sex isn’t still white-hot—and the pair talk offhandedly about what it would be like to actually walk around in public as a couple, not hiding behind closed doors. With that as his film’s introduction, Amalric proceeds to jumble chronology, sometimes leaving us temporarily confused about where we are in time. The police question Julien about the death of Esther’s husband. The relationship between the four characters before the affair is established. Was the death an accident? Or murder? And who is the culprit?
Premiering at Cannes, The Blue Room opened in the United States the same weekend as Gone Girl, and it’s tempting to see slight similarities between the two films. Beyond their shifting perspectives and murder-mystery framework, the movies are also linked by their jaundiced view of romantic bliss, which they view as a temporary condition that inevitably leads to animosity, alienation or worse. But unlike David Fincher’s grand roller coaster of stylistic flourishes and cold-blooded craftsmanship, The Blue Room is determinedly modest and melancholy, tinged with a grim finality. Amalric’s characters are trapped in a box of their own making; when Julien and Esther move into their own separate box, it doesn’t get any better for them.
Those hoping for a niftily executed whodunit should look elsewhere. Amalric isn’t so concerned with how Esther’s husband met his doom. Rather, the man’s death is played as a metaphor, an outward expression of the guilt and shame Julien feels about his affair. Consequently, The Blue Room is taut and tense, its running time less than 80 minutes and individual scenes not allowed to meander. The whole film seems to be from Julien’s perspective, as if he’s frantically trying to reconstruct how he got into this mess, and the crosscutting reflects that roving anxiety.
As we wait for the particulars of the crime to come into focus, The Blue Room lets us wonder about the relative guilt of its main characters. Amalric plays Julien as a nervous, brooding type. Decked out in a goatee and close-cropped hair, he conveys the same soulfulness he often brings to his roles, but there’s more edge to it, a gnawing longing that probably drew Julien into this tryst in the first place. Even better is Drucker as his mistress. Alluring but also distant, Esther is probably the type of woman who would lead a married man astray: She represents an unbridled sexual freedom that’s entrancing. But as The Blue Room moves along, Drucker reveals other layers to this woman, complicating our feelings about Esther, as well as Julien.
If ultimately The Blue Room is another tale of the perils of sleeping around, Amalric makes sure to give his intimate study its own particular sting. Days after seeing the film, I couldn’t swear to know precisely how the murder mystery played out. But I remember how it felt. There’s a chilly, doomed air hanging over this movie from its first seconds. Some of the characters are dead, and others don’t realize they might as well be.
Director: Mathieu Amalric
Writers: Mathieu Amalric, Stéphanie Cléau (screenplay); Georges Simenon (novel)
Starring: Léa Drucker, Mathieu Amalric, Stéphanie Cléau, Laurent Poitrenaux
Release Date: Oct. 3, 2014
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.