If your first and only question in a murder story is “whodunit?” then The Blue Room is not for you. If you’ve seen your fill of genre courtroom dramas and are up for something a little more cinematic, more truly mysterious, then you should buy a ticket to actor/writer/director Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room.
Murder mysteries assume that a series of events and facts can add up to a satisfying, tidy short novel. But that’s not necessarily how memory works, nor evidence, nor even narrative stories. The Blue Room shows that the continuous flow of reality that we just call “life” can’t easily be summed up after the fact.
The movie’s plot is revealed slowly. It’s clear that there has been a death, possibly a murder, and that our protagonist, Julien (Amalric) is a suspect. He was having an affair with Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), a woman who is not his wife; that’s not in question. As awkward and immoral as that is, it’s nothing compared to the suspicion that he might have killed someone. If denying murder means acknowledging adultery, then you’re better off wearing the scarlet A.
The movie starts with sex, but indirectly. A lot of things are indirect in The Blue Room. There are cutaways of furniture, of shadows on the wall, of spaces within rooms, of things on desks. We spend much time taking in our surroundings, enough so that they become familiar; we form memories of them. Amalric wants you to feel like you were there, in the place, at that time of day. The evidence, the fact of the sex act, is a tiny part of the flow of time on that day and in that place.
Almost immediately — before anyone can settle in to the afterglow, we’re jarred by someone in authority asking questions about the afternoon, but only about the sex. It is recounted factually — not dreamily, not how it was lived, but how it ought to be told to a person sitting in judgment.
What started as the present tense becomes the past tense. A third interview, with a psychologist, makes the question more ambiguous — is the psychologist involved before, or after, the police investigation? Will Julien tell a different story to a psychologist than he will to a detective? Why tell the absolute truth to either? Why not tell them the version that they surely want to hear, the version that will allow him to go free, or to be psychologically cleared?
And when The Blue Room reaches what would in a conventional film be the denouement, Amalric plays the scene perfectly. A piano solo that had started a minute before keeps playing. The music doesn’t swell. Time doesn’t stop. This is just one more moment in the flow of life. It’s more important than many moments, but time doesn’t change. Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion; bodies at rest tend to stay at rest.
Meanwhile, Julien looks back at how he got where he is, what his affair meant, whether he had decided that he would not see his lover any more — the past perfect blended with the future conditional.
Amalric isn’t trying to be being too clever about this; he just seems to acknowledge that the past is a foreign country, and nobody who wasn’t there can really know what it’s like.
Break from the Norm
When I was first interested in films, I would read reviews. I would read reviews like this — that the film is “about” memory and perception and subjectivity. I would be mildly annoyed that anyone would waste their time making such a film, and that a critic would praise it for these vague qualities that sound so much less interesting than a real, honest-to-God drama about murder and adultery.
But see twenty courtroom dramas, including some mediocre ones, and you begin to realize that there are limits to conventional narrative, especially genre films. You get to where you can watch them in your sleep, and you might as well.
The Blue Room could be a mystery, a courtroom drama, or a stalker movie. Instead, Amalric plays up the truly mysterious elements of evidence and memory and makes a much more interesting film.