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For those who are not particularly enamoured with contemporary French cinema, the face of actor Mathieu Amalric is the kind that will certainly be recognisable in a way that is not always easy to ascertain. In English language films, his handsome but beady-eyed visage makes him a reliably devilish character actor who can prove useful in playing shadowy, disreputable figures. This is obvious in films like Munich or Quantum of Solace. His most famous role would probably be as a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic in the deeply moving The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, and it is within French cinema that his leading man credentials remain. His limited recognition as an actor outside his native land is one thing, but Amalric’s global notoriety as a filmmaker is unequivocally paltrier. However, after watching his cryptic, head-scratching erotic thriller, The Blue Room, one wonders if this really deserves to be the case.
The Blue Room’s splintered plot only starts to truly come together in its third act. This is because the jumbled narrative is conjured like a jigsaw puzzle wherein all of the pieces have been flung apart to opposite ends of the room, with those pieces slowly but surely coming back together to reveal the full picture. The fractured storytelling means that right from the beginning we are shown these pieces with little-to-no context as the life of middle-aged farming machinery rep. Julien Gahyde (Amalric), is very literally, thrown into disarray. We see snippets of his adulterous hotel-room affair with a disconcertingly devoted mistress, anxious interviews between a handcuffed Gahyde, a judge and a state-sanctioned psychologist, and moments spent with his loving wife and child. The connections between these seemingly random scenes are revealed in due time over the course of the film, as Amalric the director delights in drip-feeding us detail.
Without giving too much away, what ensues is a double murder investigation where viewers are encouraged to determine the culprit; we are left to decide whether or not our protagonist is the prime suspect or victim of circumstance. Amalric’s talent as director certainly lies in his ability to construct narrative through deconstruction, although the exemplary editing work of François Gédigier should not be disregarded. If this film was in a poker game, it would bide its time, keep its cards close to its chest and wait for just the right moment to reveal the royal flush it’s been harbouring all this time. This is like a marriage between two of David Fincher’s recent films: The Blue Room has all the taut melodrama of Gone Girl but its DNA is more comparable to the ingenious structure of something like The Social Network.
Speaking of Gone Girl, it’s the standout performance of Stephanie Cléau as the mischievous mistress Esther that calls to mind the simmering, unhinged intensity of Rosamund Pike. Unlike Pike’s character in Gone Girl however, Esther’s true motivations are kept under wraps until The Blue Room’s final moments. We are never quite sure whether her apparent devotion for Gahyde is sincere lovesickness or a feigned act of Lady Macbeth-esque cunning used to ensnare Gahyde deeper into her web. The film’s brief runtime (76 minutes) means that Esther doesn’t get to flourish as much as she should, but she does so much with just one unreadably charming grin that it rarely matters.
Amalric is more concerned with keeping us guessing anyway, and his own turn as the panicking Gahyde leaves us continuously questioning with whom the guilt lies. There are times when the dialogue of one scene encroaches over the images of another. It’s almost as if we are being told these events retroactively from a troubled psyche, like Gahyde is naively attempting to think back and work out how his life ended up in such chaos, but the memories are distorted and seem to blur together anyway. The Blue Room is refreshing for both its novel filmmaking and its adherence to old-fashioned traditions. On one hand is a thoroughly post-modern thriller, complete with a confounding and clever set up, and on the other is a kind of classic Hitchcockian ‘Whodunnit’ that we rarely see anymore. You might already be aware of Matieu Amalric the actor, but you should definitely make yourself aware of Mathieu Amalric the director.
The Blue Room is currently enjoying an exclusive re-release at the IFI. View the trailer below.