The Blue Room (2014)

*. A subtle and understated mystery based on a Georges Simenon novel; but is it too subtle for its own good?
*. The set-up is pretty standard. A married man, Julien Gahyde (played by director Mathieu Amalric) has an affair with a married woman, Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau, in a standout performance of dark emotional depths). Esther’s husband dies, we’re left to presume by her hand. Now, as she tells her lover, it’s his turn.
*. We’re in Hitchcock territory here, with something like the criss-cross deal from Strangers on a Train in place. And sure enough, Julien’s wife is poisoned in turn. But who did it? A police investigation and trial seeks to find out.
*. But I don’t think we ever do. The film is presented almost exclusively from Julien’s point of view and he seems confused himself as to what is going on. Esther might know what really happened, but she is an unreliable source, being both mad and deceptive. There’s a hint at the very end that Mrs. Despierre (Esther’s mother-in-law) had a hand in things, but it remains only a hint and we can’t be sure of her direct responsibility.
*.  (For what it may be worth, I’ll give you the story as relayed by Simenon in his book. The character of Julien is named Tony in the novel, and he’s an oblivious sort of heel — and an Italian to boot. Though it’s clear he didn’t poison his wife, he is less likeable than he is in the movie. The business at the end with Madame Despierre is this: she lies about the package containing the jam being open because that means that Andrée (Esther) couldn’t have poisoned it, which then means that Tony (Julien) had to have done it himself. She was framing him. Digression over.)
*. It’s a film that asks us to do the work of interpretation. There’s a scene near the middle of the film when Julien is on vacation with his wife and daughter. They’re at the beach and Julien plays with his wife when they go out swimming, at one point stuffing her head under water. He does this several times. She is distressed, and when she gets out of the water is mad at him. But what has happened? He doesn’t seem angry at her or even violent, much less murderous. And let’s face it, drowning her at a crowded public beach would be a pretty stupid move. Also, there is no score during this scene to give any indication as to how we’re to read it (and the film does have a very lush score that comes on strong in other places). We are like those flies painted on the walls of the courthouse. What we see is all we get.
*. Such a forensic method, looking from the outside in, makes it paradoxically easy to miss cues and clues that may be important. Even going back and looking at what seem to be important passages (the package sitting on the passenger seat of the car, for example) I’m unsure of what I’m missing. By the end I’m not even sure how Julie feels toward Esther. He had attacked her earlier, but how does he feel after they’ve been convicted? I would think it’s hard not to feel a little impressed and even flattered by that kind of love. And doesn’t he have to blame himself as well?
*. Is it too subtle then? Or coy? I’m reminded of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is a puzzle without a solution even in Joan Lindsay’s novel. For some people maintaining that mystery is the point. For others it is a source of frustration. I usually count myself in the former camp, and The Blue Room works well enough for me, but I do wish it had been put forward with a bit more passion and flair and a little less of the cool blue.

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