Like Godard’s Une Femme Mariée (1964), Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room (Le chambre bleue) begins with fragments of an unknown woman; her post-coital torso, breasts and thighs captured in a series of intimate, lover’s-eye close-ups. But these fragments are stolen from the past, quick-cut and half-remembered like a lost memory recalled while blinking. Portioned out into disassembled tableau, the unknown woman becomes an icon of quondam pleasures.
Across her briefly glimpsed contours we find the film in microcosm, flashes of flesh teasing at an illusory structure which slims its source (a novel by Georges Simenon) into morsels of subjective and objective reality, suspended over a precarious purgatory wherein every glance or gesture is questionable as motive; and in order to see the whole, one must first examine its constituent parts.
The film is great: a lithe yet muscular thriller concerning the infidelity between a bourgeois couple – Julien (Amalric), a sucessful businessman, and Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), a pharmacist’s wife – whose affair could have resulted in murder. But who is embroiled, how, and why, are facts slipped into a complex deck of deceit and deflection which Amalric delights in reshuffling before our eyes.
It’s easy to imagine this slip-sliding narrative texture as a bequeathment to Amalric from the newly passed Alain Resnais, who employed the actor for two late-period works – Wild Grass (2009) and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012) – but their objectives couldn’t be more opposite. While Resnais’ mystery narratives work from the outside in, emphasizing ambiguity over resolution, Amalric’s plot works from the inside out, gradually sifting information through a kaleidoscopic aesthetic as a way of separating fact from fiction, and finally reaching a satisfying conclusion.
Of course, the film isn’t as clear-cut as this analysis makes it sound – there are snakes on ladders along the way, flagrant misinformation, and enough ambiguity to cast murk over the moral finale – but the best thrillers work this way, satiating our curiosity for the grisly facts while complicating the players and their relationships, leaving a black blemish on an otherwise white surface.
It’s perfect material for Amalric the actor, whose (to borrow Xan Brooks’ splendid phrase) “rodent eyes” are compelled into anxious overtime, paranoiacally flitting around his paramours’ bedroom and the gendarmes offices, and finally sinking into cold, wet unease for the court scenes – which recall Sacha Guitry’s black comic masterpiece La Poison (1951) – where his ordeal comes to an end. Amalric, knowing too well that his depleted features are a canvas for nausea and fatigue, is careful to film himself mostly in medium shots, positioning the camera on the side of the inquiring law and neglecting us any easy association of guilt with his unquietly neurotic face. It’s a move in service of story rather than vanity, and just one element, beside a sharp eye for 1.33 composition and his intuitive approach to pacing, which marks out Amalric as an actor-director to watch.
The Blue Room’s eloquent form is interestingly juxtaposed with another fragmented thriller at this year’s LFF, Syllas Tzoumerkas’ A Blast. Unlike Amalric’s film, which composes every scene like a jigsaw piece specifically crafted to fit another, A Blast is a mosaic of broken glass – or perhaps the heavy metal cover of an orchestral symphony. It’s an immediately gripping film, but not interesting – the sheer momentum of the editing and enigmatic content of the images can’t help but engage a fresh mind, as the whirl of visceral action; explicit fucking; anxious phone calls; a car tearing away from a forest fire, is like an unexpected adrenaline shot. But once the debris is digested, its rhythm settled, and a plot – about a depressed mother escaping her life – is established, what’s left?
The film is a textbook shock-baiting exercise (the lonely sailor away from his wife has sex with a man! gasp! the lonely wife trying to reconnect with her sexuality watches hardcore porn in public and emotionally recalls the first tussle with her husband, even typing “tears” into the porn search engine to find sad sex! groan!), its sloshed structure made non-linear only to conceal an inherent shallowness at the core of the story. Greece is burning, did you hear?
Contemporary Greek cinema has located the disintegrating family unit as its perennial theme – an important motif for the country and its historical literature – but Tzoumerkas essays the condition in the most aggressively juvenile manner outside of a Costas Zapas joint, and at one point lays out his subtext as plain text; “we have inherited a sinking ship.” A guttural bassline is introduced into the score at around the halfway mark, underlining the despair and anxiety at the heart of the film; it’s about as subtle as a visual strapline reading “we’ve done and fucked it now!”
It’s an approach so base – exacerbated by flashback scenes cast in a faded, yellowish tint, and a finale which briefly touches on Nazi imagery – that it actively refuses analysis, and lead Angeliki Papoulia’s (Dogtooth; Alps) melodramatic performance finds the exact screechy tonal register to complement the abrasive action. If Tzoumerkas’ sole aim with A Blast was to create a visual and aural representation of his crumbling homeland, and the anxiety it has spread among community and families, then he has arguably succeeded – but as a narrative representation it’s a simplistic, jaggedly incoherent work which never navigates its way out of the doldrums.
The Blue Room Film Rating:
A Blast Film Rating: