The Blue Room is a thriller that’s unusually preoccupied with the consequences of erotic indiscretions. The film abounds in guilt and grief, reveling in a general sense of hopelessly broken social connection. The good stuff that people think of when they think of noirs (illicit sex with improbably amazing women, one-liners, whiskey, the apparent non-existence of bad teeth and lung cancer) is largely unaccounted for here. Well, there is a woman who’s gorgeous enough for any noir, traditional and non-traditional alike: Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), a fleshy and alluring dark angel who would do David Lynch proud. Director Mathieu Amalric certainly drinks her in with his camera, but the images go by in tantalizing, somewhat unfulfilled flashes. Esther’s a figurative ghost, an admittedly unsurprising symbol of domestic restlessness that informs the film with sensual danger. She’s a cliché, but Amalric understands that. The Blue Room is specifically about that sort of cliché, in fact: about how an unreasonably internal life, rich in traditional fantasies and dreams and hungers, can potentially overwhelm and destroy the physical life right in front of you.
The film doesn’t really have a plot, and Amalric, who co-wrote the script with Cléau (based on a novel by Georges Simenon), probably knows that too. He pointedly refuses to establish a present tense, locking the audience out of a story that appears to have played out before the film began. In the opening, Julien (Amalric) is stuck in a small police station, fielding questions from shrinks and investigators that mostly revolve around his affair with Esther and its effect on his relationships with his wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker), and daughter, Suzanne (Mona Jaffart). Something dreadful has clearly happened to trigger this intense interest in Julien on the part of the authorities, and Amalric savors this mood of anticipatory dread. We hear what Julien tells the cops and see—in purplish, hallucinatory images—the events that inspire his accounts, which subtly differ from one another. A conventional director would highlight this discrepancy to cast doubt on Julien’s motives, but Amalric emphasizes the past as an illusory dimension that resists quantification, as a realm that irrationally informs our present decisions. The past, which is to say, the proper narrative of the film, lingers just out of reach, leaving Julien, and us, with impressionistic shards of incident that can occasionally draw surprising emotional blood.
Amalric occasionally pushes for obvious effects. The color blue is too bluntly equated with ineffable (often carnal) longing, and the shots are often held too long, directing your awareness to each of his very deliberate cuts. But these are minor issues. The director displays an impressive command of atmosphere, layering a series of prismatic hyper-colored images with eerie precision, conjuring a timeless mood of regret that resists the easy sexism of most crime films. There’s also one jolting shot that elaborates on the tragedy at the film’s center with unexpected nonchalance. Just as you’re bracing yourself for a big melodramatic climax, a picture of a victim (a major character) is casually shuffled into the frame among assorted files on an investigator’s desk. As in the films of Claude Chabrol, the mystery’s revealed to be no mystery at all, proving the need for conspiracy to be a symptom of a need for fantasy, which, simply, helps to distract one from the boredom of the everyday, yes, but, less simply, encourages us to launder our vices through complicated elaboration and explanation.