Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room screened last night, and screens again tonight, at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Sundance Selects will release the film theatrically beginning this Friday, October 3 in NYC.
Everything about Mathieu Almaric’s The Blue Room feels small and contained. Actor-director Almaric (best-known to American audiences as a character actor and James Bond villain) shoots in the nearly-square 1.33 aspect ratio, at a slim running time of 76 minutes, with a focus so tight that it takes a good chunk of that time for the story to fully reveal itself. The opening moments consist largely of close-ups and shots of empty or near-empty rooms that manage to avoid capturing either Julien (Almaric) or Esther (Stéphanie Cléau) clearly in the boxy frame. Shots that contain a full view of their faces are, at least for a little while, momentary glimpses. It’s clear that they’re naked and, soon after that, that they’re married—not to each other.
More trickles out as the movie cuts between Julien conducting a series of interviews with lawyers and police and his encounters with Esther, as well as his home life with Delphine (Léa Drucker) and their young daughter. Julien’s infidelity, then, feels like a ticking bomb, and the strategy of withholding information imbues even the most domestic scenes with a sense of mystery. That elusiveness excuses, at least for a while, the monotony of some of the performances: the way Almaric, for example, spends much of the movie looking dazed with worry. As a director, he spends much of the movie regarding his characters with a cool gaze and only hints of empathy.
This works well as far as it goes, which is, by my count, around 50 of those 76 minutes. Once the movie doles out some revelations and catches up with itself, eliminating most of the flashbacks, questioning and courtroom scenes dominate the narrative, and The Blue Room becomes something of a procedural trudge. I found myself wondering if I missed some crucial piece of noirish screw-tightening, if I misread a subtitle and let an important puzzle piece get away. From what I can gather, this isn’t the case: it’s all the same slow realization that begins somewhere around the halfway mark, maybe a bit later. It’s a miniature version of those Focus Features-style late-summer thrillers for adults (often but not always John le Carre adaptations) where there’s always a bit less going on than meets the eye. Almaric is a thoughtful technician, but this movie, in the end, feels a little bloodless.