“The story goes like this,” begins Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: “Alfred Hitchcock calls Georges Simenon, who is among the speediest and most prolific authors of the twentieth century, with nearly four hundred works to his name. A secretary answers, apologizes, and explains that Monsieur cannot be disturbed, because he has just started a new book. Hitch: ‘That’s alright, I’ll wait.’ Untrue, of course, but apocrypha don’t always lie. Simenon had a matchless ability to take the first narrative step, without fuss, and then to forge ahead, as though beckoned by the destiny of his characters, and that untiring purpose has proved invaluable to the movies. The list of his beneficiaries runs from Jean Renoir, with Night at the Crossroads, in 1932, to Béla Tarr and The Man from London, in 2007, and now we have The Blue Room, directed by Mathieu Amalric. The room in question is a bedchamber in a small provincial hotel, where Julien, played by Amalric, meets his lover, Esther (Stéphanie Cléau)—only eight times, but that is sufficient, as Simenon fans will confirm, to precipitate any man’s ruin.”
“Esther’s a figurative ghost, an admittedly unsurprising symbol of domestic restlessness that informs the film with sensual danger,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “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.”
“We see elements of Chabrol, Hitchcock, Lang, Preminger, and Resnais, but Amalric owns the final product,” writes Howard Feinstein for Filmmaker. “During a trial, a face-on montage of successive witnesses stresses their subjectivity. An exit from a courtroom is filmed like a final curtain. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the film, as does the nostalgia of a conventional thriller, with academy ratio and classic studio music put to powerful effect.”
“Even the film’s score (beautifully composed by Grégoire Hetzel) reminds you of Bernard Herrmann,” agrees Dustin Chang at Twitch. “The Blue Room feels completely opposite of the much improvised, free wheeling, 8½-esque, On Tour, a film which Amalric won the Best Director award for at Cannes a few years back.”
“The most traditionally suspenseful scene is one not in Simenon,” notes the Voice‘s Alan Scherstuhl. “Julien has called off the affair, and is grinding through family life despite the suspicions of his wife (Léa Drucker, movingly harrowed). She has recently hinted—by shattering a main course just before dinner—that she knows about Esther. Now she stands high up on a ladder, hanging a long ribbon of Christmas tinsel, balanced uncertainly over a two-tiered glass coffee table. From the floor, Julien seizes the tinsel strand and asks, rather too grimly, why she seems so mad at him. Will he tug? Is this the charge he’s facing? If she falls, could the shards of glass possibly be as sharp and clear and cutting as the individual moments of this film?”
Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.
Updates, 9/30: At the Dissolve, Scott Tobias finds that “as it settles in, the thrilling chutzpah of The Blue Room’s opening salvo gets lost in the intricate curlicues of the plot, which take away much of its illicit rush.”
But at Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell finds that the ending is “a goading motivation for a second viewing.”
Updates, 10/1: “Shame and regret hang over every scene, and the feelings only deepen the longer the movie goes on,” writes Keith Uhlich for Time Out. “This is less of a whodunit than a psychological portrait of one man as he unravels, his guilt ever in question. For all its surface effectiveness, however, The Blue Room never quite makes that intangible leap into greatness. It’s a phenomenally executed exercise that, like its protagonist’s memory, is too wispy for its own good.”
“The astringent minimalism of French directors over the past 60 years may have been perfected by Robert Bresson, but it was inspired by the netherworld in which Simenon characters dwell,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “As director, co-adaptor and star, Amalric has made the book into a film that is splendidly taut, forcefully understated and, at just 76 minutes, blessedly concise. It earns admiration both for the mood it creates and for the melodramatic excesses it avoids.”
At the Film Stage, Forrest Cardamenis gives The Blue Room a B.
Updates, 10/2: Eric Hynes in Reverse Shot:
[T]he pervasiveness of Julien’s guilt overwhelms all incidents and revelations that come to pass.” This is a guilt that supersedes action—without necessarily negating or disproving it. It’s a Catholic guilt. A guilt that comes from sin, yes, but from a notion of sinfulness that incorporates thought as well as deed. A notion that conflates, as Jesus states in the Gospels, culpability for things wished for and fantasized about with the fulfillment of those things.
For this reason, or rather, for this reason for starters, it’s worth considering Amalric’s film with more respect than it’s thus far been given. Viewing it as a “small” or “minor” film, or as a mere exercise in style or genre, is not only a generally unhelpful act of diminution, but in this case overlooks Amalric’s laudable, ambitious, and ultimately illuminating use of genre to explore this complex spiritual state of heart and mind. Underneath the cool, spare, elliptical surface beats a troubled, thorn-crowned heart. See Chabrol; feel Bresson and Rohmer.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club: “Amalric—an actor whose fidgety, neurotic charm has made him one of the most distinctive presences in contemporary French cinema—has been making eccentric, under-the-radar films since the mid-’90s; The Blue Room represents his leanest, most morose, and most handsomely accomplished work, distinguished by enigmatic close-ups, lush orchestrations, and delicate lighting.”
Amalric “wants to honor the original,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment, “and perhaps to remind us that a novelist still sometimes thought of as an indefatigable pulp factory was in fact an acute psychologist, a pitiless social critic, and a formal adventurer whose strategies (certainly in this 1964 novel) could hold their own against more exalted literary names.”
Updates, 10/4: In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis talks us through the opening sequence. “In a few short minutes, Mr. Amalric has introduced the kind of cinematic call and response—one in which a movie’s sights and sounds comment on each other—that establishes that you’re in the grip of a real director. It’s exciting, although Mr. Amalric tends to move too fast for you to linger appreciatively over his filmmaking. The movie unfolds with the same terrific velocity as the Simenon novel.”
“Amalric’s careful yet exuberant direction is nothing new,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com. His first five fiction features utilize depth more expertly than most 3D features, but here his images have been wrought with laser precision…. The subtle directionality of the compositions and the constant shifts from the present to the past, The Blue Room often feels like a work of cinematic futurism, not dissimilar to the films of Steven Soderbergh.”
“Like Gone Girl it’s a study of a middle-class marriage in terminal decay that contains both a dreamlike, symbolic level and also a more conventional murder mystery, built around the archetype of the ‘dangerous woman,'” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “But this film hews an entirely different path to reach essentially the same destination…. In both The Blue Room and Gone Girl, the real mystery is not a whodunit but the unplumbed narcissistic and masochistic depths of the male ego.”
For David Thomson, also writing about Gone Girl and The Blue Room, but for the New Republic, “the ultimate triumph in what Amalric has done is to show us all the different forces that can be at work in an affair.”
“Cléau, a non-actor who works mainly as an adapter of texts for theater, is remarkably unself-conscious,” writes Sheri Linden in the Los Angeles Times. “Over the course of the story she effects extraordinary changes in Esther’s demeanor. But they’re really changes in her lover’s perception. Every revelation registers in the gifted Amalric’s gaze: infinitesimal physical mutations, emotional detonations.”
David Ehrlich interviews Amalric for Little White Lies.
Update, 10/8: Viewing (4’56”). Eric Hynes talks with Amalric for Reverse Shot.
Update, 10/9: Liza Béar interviews Amalric for BOMB.
Update, 10/14: David Gregory Lawson talks with Amalric for Film Comment.