After taking Best Director’s prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival with the burlesque On Tour, actor/director Mathieu Amalric is back on La Croisette with an adaptation of fellow Belgian Georges Simenon’s La Chambre Bleue (The Blue Room). Simenon himself was no stranger to the festival. He was président of the jury in 1960, but is probably best known as the writer of the hugely popular Maigret crime series which made him one of the most widely-read authors worldwide. Amalric chose his source material well for this enigmatic crime thriller set in provincial France. La Chambre Bleue is told in flashback and the suspense is cleverly handled by hiding the identity of the crime and the murder victim until halfway through the movie.
Adulterous passion and sex are the plot’s driving force as we meet Julien (Amalric) and Esther (Stéphanie Cléau) naked and wrapped in each other arms in a hotel in the blue room of the title. Both are married, but Esther wants more. When he comes under pressure to commit to the relationship, Julien begins to backpedal, but it’s clear his relationshp with his wife Delphine (Léa Drucker) lacks the intensity he shares with Esther. Cut to Julian being escorted to a prison cell for an unrevealed crime he claims he did not commit.
La Chambre Bleue has an odd, old-fashioned feel emphasized by Grégoire Hetzel’s music score straight from a 1950s American thriller – think Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. Although clearly a contemporary setting, none of the main characters makes much use of modern technology This adds to the artificial, claustrophic mood than runs throughout the film strengthening the impression the characters are living in their own self-contained world. While the use of flashback neatly pulls together the individual pieces of the puzzle, it unfortunately throws into relief the slow pace of the action once the two main characters are arrested. A lot of time is then spent trawling through the minutae of a police investigation – checking details of statements, flicking through mountains of paperwork – which seems an unnecessary distraction.
Not only does Amalric direct and star in the film, but he co-wrote the scenario with his co-star Cléau. Perhaps he has been stretched too thinly by these different tasks. He often plays laconic, moody characters who give off a misanthropic vibe, but here he seems more distracted and less invested in the role of Julien. The rest of the cast are excellant, especially the sexy, diabolic Cléau. It remains to be seen whether the film can convince the jury in Un Certain Regard competition it deserves to take top prize.