Not a chamber piece in the most literal sense, but with all the poky airlessness that its title implies, “The Blue Room” represents a disappointing return to Cannes for actor-turned-auteur Mathieu Amalric. Adapting Georges Simenon’s slender mystery novella with fidelity to its bleak narrative but indifference to its disquieting erotic and psychological subtext, Amalric’s fourth feature as a director is less a whodunit than a whodunwhat, with the star in wounded, taciturn form as a businessman under investigation for an initially unspecified crime. But while this appropriately brief film unravels its enigma at a tidy clip, it gathers neither enough heat, nor quite enough of a chill, to linger in the bones. Amalric’s name and a sexy premise may secure some distributor interest outside France, but the view from this “Room” is nonetheless limited.
Amalric’s last feature as director, the sweet-and-spiky burlesque-ensemble study “On Tour,” was a surprise hit in the 2010 Cannes competish, winning him best director and netting far wider arthouse exposure than his first two films. That “The Blue Room” was relegated to Un Certain Regard suggested less confidence on the selectors’ part, particularly with its roots in a key work by one of France’s most celebrated authors. (Maurice Pialat and Andre Techine are among the filmmakers who previously toyed with bringing it to the screen.) That caution is justified: Niche in appeal despite nifty, James M. Cain-esque genre trappings, Amalric’s exceedingly neat film doesn’t conjure the breath-holding intensity of mood that marks cinema’s best Simenon adaptations, including Cedric Kahn’s “Red Lights” and Patrice Leconte’s “Monsieur Hire.”
Only Gregoire Hetzel’s swooping, shrilling orchestral score — which evokes Maurice Jarre’s “Eyes Without a Face” compositions in isolated flashes — nods overtly to the noirish alarm of the material; Amalric’s verbal and visual storytelling otherwise operates at a low-temperature proficiency that stresses the story’s procedural structure ahead of its darker, nastier motivation. His most interesting formal coup is to confine his d.p. Christophe Beaucarne, traditionally a lushly generous craftsman, to a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio — which duly imbues proceedings with a certain itchy claustrophobia, but equally emphasizes the 75-minute pic’s formal and emotional slightness.
Though character names have been changed to no obvious end, Amalric and co-writer/co-star Stephanie Cleau hew close to Simenon’s text in many scenes, notably the lovers’ tryst in the eponymous hotel room that, while portrayed only in memory fragments, provides all the clues needed to unlock what emerges as a classically simple mystery. “If I were suddenly free, could you free yourself too?” asks foxy pharmacist’s wife Esther (Cleau) of mild-mannered family man Julien (Amalric) in their postcoital fug. Only as the film progresses does it become clear how seriously she means the question: From the office of the investigating magistrate (Laurent Poitrenaux), Julien reflects rather coldly on the outcome of the affair, and its effect on his already strained relationship with wife Delphine (Lea Drucker).
The combination of nonlinear narrative with rearview narration is managed with some skill by Amalric, as the film effectively keeps the question of Julien’s guilt — not to mention the small question of what he might actually be guilty of — in play for some time, until the return of Esther to present-day proceedings gets his blood up. But while the geometry of the storytelling might do Simenon proud, the atmospherics are lacking. Francois Gedigier’s editing effectively takes its cue from the clean, regular cadence of the novel’s sentences, but the rhythm doesn’t always move with the stakes, even as the film enters courtroom-drama territory in the final act. Imagery is similarly modest, though it makes good on the possibilities for color-coding presented by the title. Punchier than the cobalt walls of the hotel room (and, later, the courthouse) is red, the obvious color of recrimination — whether in a heart-shaped drop of blood on bed linen or the scarlet hairdo of a witness.
Performances are fine across the contained ensemble, with Cleau putting a contemporary, independent spin on a femme fatale role. It’s only in such nuances of interpretation that the material is updated: Though Amalric sets the film in a world of visible Mac computers, it seems odd that an extramarital affair should proceed with the exchange of posted letters, and not a single text message.