4:3 is the algebra of Georges Simenon’s terse psychological thriller The Blue Room: four individuals, three couples, two of which are married. 4:3 also happens to be the aspect ratio in which the film was shot. In a small French town, the redundant pair, illicit lovers, meet secretly in the titular blue room of Hotel des Voyageurs overlooking a public square; a passionate affair on the wane morphs into crime the way at high temperatures metal liquefies.
Written and directed by Mathieu Amalric and co-written with his real-life partner Stéphanie Cléau, this adaptation hews closely to the unusual (for Simenon) non-linear structure of the 140-page novella. Both Amalric and Cléau—in her first major role—star in the film as the defiant lovers: Julien Gahyde, a tractor salesman, and Esther Despierre, a pharmacist—incidentally, very fitting professions for the story. The narrative intercuts the present reality of a magistrate’s criminal interrogation of Julien with Julien’s reminiscences: obsessive memories of love-making and haunting snatches of dialogue that give the film a chamber music quality. In a feat of aesthetic economy, the interrogatory format enables the story to unfold as the facts of the case—a double spousal murder—are unravelled through the minutiae of the legal discovery process.
No spoilers, but in a pro-active twist on the femme fatale, Esther’s desire to be with Julien forever is satisfied, though not quite in the way she had envisioned.
A note in defense of small films: Compact at 74 minutes, the film’s Director of Photography Christophe Beaucarne uses the old Academy 4:3 format to box in and highlight visual details. Enhanced by Grégoire Hertzel’s chilling score and François Gédigier’s editing, The Blue Roomevokes character and atmosphere better, and creates more mystery and tension than another current 20th Century Fox Oscar-contender, the 150-minute Gone Girl, which also plays with tropes of adultery and crime.
A high-profile, versatile actor (Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum Solace, Arnaud Despléchin’s A Christmas Tale and Kings and Queen), this is Amalric’s fourth feature as a director. His stylistically very different previous film On Tour (2010), in which a group of contemporary American “new burlesque” dancers are taken on tour in France, won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010.
I spoke with the enigmatic Amalric in French following the US premiere of The Blue Room at the 52nd New York Film Festival.
Liza Béar Shall we speak in French?
Mathieu Amalric French! Why not Korean?
LB Or Urdu since The Blue Room is a roman dur.
LB The first film credit of yours I could find was trainee assistant director on Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants. Were you turned on by Malle’s first feature, Elevator to the Gallows?
MA Yes, but more by his Feu follet. I got into watching films because of Otar Iosseliani, the Georgian director. My parents became friends with him at the time we lived in Moscow. Do you know his work? He’s a fantastic director who’s made films in Georgia and in France. He makes absurdist comedies, a bit like Jacques Tati. He never casts actors, only people like my father, friends, whoever’s around. I’d known him since I was eight and when I was about nineteen he took me on set for one of his films, Favorites of the Moon. That experience made me want to make films. But since I didn’t get into IDEC, the French film school, I started directing shorts on my own. I earned my living as an assistant director, assistant editor, doing all kinds of jobs on the set, though I detested being an assistant.
Some years later, Arnaud Despléchin asked me to play Paul, the lead in My Sexual Life. I was already 29. I agreed, but I told myself to watch out or I’d remain an actor. If you love cinema you have to explore the marvelous, infinite possibilities of cinema language, like Resnais did. So immediately after the shoot, I left for Istanbul to stay with a friend and write my first feature as a director, Mange ta soupe. But to be an actor! (pulls a face) That’s a form of laziness.
MA It wasn’t on my mind. Like Otar Iosseliani, I wanted to learn all aspects of filmmaking—make-up, costumes, props, continuity, everything.
LB At the time, in an interview after Mange ta soupe (Eat Your Soup), which is about a house engulfed by books, you said you were interested in forging a dramaturgical tool out of something personal. I wondered how that process has evolved in The Blue Room? Your father was a foreign correspondent and then editor-in-chief for Le Monde, and your mother was a literary critic, also for Le Monde. That must have been quite a parental load.
MA Yes. That’s why filmmaking was good for me—very hands-on. Though I don’t consider my father an intellectual: he grew up in the countryside and he’s more like an artisan of the written word and the print medium who cobbled a newspaper together every day. But to get back to your point, I no longer say to myself, as I did for Mange ta soupe, “Oh la la, how will I process autobiographical material so that it’s interesting for an audience, spill my guts on the table and let the audience figure it out?” No. I like the idea of putting on a show.
LB Like burlesque in your previous film, On Tour.
MA Right. But as for The Blue Room, I was drawn by Simenon’s writing, the thriller, the suspense, the relationship between the lovers—
MA Voila. Getting at the essence of what drives us—sexuality, the incredible force physical attraction can have, the alchemy between two bodies. And the fact that I also acted in the movie with Stéphanie, my long-time partner—
LB You probably couldn’t have made the film without her.
MA No, of course not. The initial impetus to direct another film was an offer from Paulo Branco, my producer—I hadn’t directed a film for 4 years. But that particular film, The Blue Room, is clearly linked to the present state of my relationship with Stéphanie, and our desire to work together officially. As opposed to working together unofficially: you read my texts and give me feedback, I’ll read yours and tell you what I think, the way you do when you live together. We wanted to do a project together, to both be paid, with a written contract from a producer.
LB Is it true that you had given Stéphanie a copy of The Blue Room to read when you first met?
MA Yes, a long time ago.
LB So it had been in your heads for a while.
MA Not necessarily. But, when I read the book many years ago, I’d been very struck by the opening paragraphs. For my previous film, On Tour, I made my co-screenwriters, Marcello and Philippe, read it. I had even written a scene called The Blue Room. It’s the last scene in the film, in which Mimi and I are making love. We had found a blue room. It’s about that miraculous state of lassitude after making love, when finally a man lets himself go, and a woman closes the door gently so that he can sleep. Details of normal life that you forget in moments of extreme solitude or distress, but that blow your mind when you remember them. Because over time, when you live as a couple, it can happen that you’re no longer mindful of such little things.
LB Is The Blue Room the only Simenon novel that has a non-linear narrative?
MA I don’t know. I haven’t read all 400 of his books, but I do read a lot of articles by Simenon scholars, and had discussions with John Simenon, his son. It certainly is one of the very few that are non-linear.
LB After the erotic opening scene, does the novel cut straight to the prosecutor’s interrogation?
MA “Did I hurt you?” “No.” “Are you mad at me?” “No.” That’s how the novel starts—with dialogue. If Julien, the character I play in the film, had been asked if he was happy, he would have said “Yes.” But in fact he wasn’t thinking about anything. He was feeling good. Then there’s this famous passage: “Andrée, naked on the ravaged bed, her legs apart, a trace of semen clinging to the shadowy patch between her thighs.” [The novel’s Andrée and Tony are Esther and Julien in the film.] That’s the first time Simenon used the word “semen” in one of his books.
LB Hard to believe that would be shocking in 1963!
MA That passage in the book made me think of Gustave Courbet’s 19th-century painting “The Origin of the World.” For me the scene is about a man who can’t get over that image—the mystery of creation.
And then—zut, I forget what was I going to say—something very precise.
LB We were talking about switching from past to present.
MA Oh yes then, all of a sudden, in the book there’s a time switch. An off-screen voice asks, “Did she bite you often?” What Simenon conveys by literary means I can dramatize cinematically in a more startling way by dislocating sound and image. You wonder who’s speaking and what’s going on.
LB You find out bit by bit as the story progresses that the spouses of the two lovers have been murdered.
MA “You’re sure she wasn’t biting you on purpose?” The story unfolds in two time frames almost immediately. I love this line of Julien’s to the judge: “Living through an experience is not the same as peeling it away, layer by layer, after the fact.”
LB In Wimbledon Stadium, a film you directed in 2002, starring Jeanne Balibar, you also explored the theme of reconstructing events through memory.
MA Yes, that’s very troubling, I was living with Jeanne at the time. Isn’t it bizarre that I made a film with Jeanne, tall and dark-haired, and with Stéphanie, also tall and dark-haired? I wonder why. But there’s something really marvelous in the act of filming, in the energy that’s exchanged.
LB Does it change the relationship, once you’ve made a film together?
MA As a person, Stéphanie’s very reserved. She’s not someone who would use seduction as a technique. The fact that she played a lead role in the film, that she surpassed herself and did something she didn’t know she could do … And then right after the shoot, she directed actors in her own play: something in her has really changed.
LB And what about you?
MA Working together simplifies life.
LB You arrived in New York two days ago, hot off the stage from the French provinces.
MA Last Friday we played St Valéry-en-Caux. Stéphanie is directing Le Moral des ménages(The Morale of Households), a novel by Eric Reinhardt that she adapted. There are two actors: Laure Tondu who plays all the feminine roles, and me. When I get home we’ll continue to tour in Valenciennes, Mulhouse, Bordeaux, Saint Nazaire, and Paris.
LB It’s a real trade-off, then.
MA My friend calls it “cultural exchangism.”
LB Do you like being on stage?
MA For her I do. I like the way she reinvents me. I make my entrance to the music of Ennio Morricone, who wrote film scores for Sergio Leone. She knows I’ve always wanted to be a rock star like Keith Richards.
LB Simenon would write a novel in eleven days, seven or eight for the first draft and two to three days to revise it. He would get a medical check-up before he started each novel, write his set quota of 80,000 words a day—in pencil—and then throw up from the stress. I imagine you didn’t have quite such a tight schedule?
MA No, but in order to shoot in July we had to give my producer Paulo Branco a script by April 15, so we wrote it in about six weeks. I was in production for L’amour est un crime parfait (Love is A Perfect Crime) with the Larrieu brothers in Switzerland. Stéphanie was in Paris. After I’d optioned the book from John Simenon, the son who owns the rights, Stéphanie started to write. The first thing she did was to extract the dialogue. Nothing else. And that’s when I realized for the first time that there was a play with time, that some of the scenes are flashbacks to Julien’s memories, and that the spoken lines did not necessarily answer each other. I had three days off during the Larrieu shoot, so Stéphanie came to Switzerland and we worked in the hotel. That was good. Afterwards we worked by e-mail, with me reacting to what she’d written and scanning the pages back to her. She took care of all the computer stuff and formatting the script in two columns, for on screen and off screen. When I finished shooting the Larrieu film, we really buckled down for two weeks to meet the deadline.
The script construction, the in, the off, the resonances—everything had to be indicated precisely because we had a very short production period. I couldn’t afford to make mistakes. We shot in the old Academy ratio, 4:3, to emphasize physical details of recurring memory images. For the criminal investigation aspect of the film, we also had to work very hard with the police to recreate the conditions under which the police and judicial system worked in the early sixties when they had no cell phones, computers, or DNA testing.
LB There are giant folders of documents in the film. I suppose now everything’s in a database.
MA Not always, it depends on the judge. I worked a lot with a judge whose name, amazingly, was Philippe Salomon, in Bobigny, to the northwest of Paris.
LB How did you find the locations for the shoot? Was it an area you already knew?
MA No, we were looking for the right room.
La Flèche, the place where we shot, had the feel of any small French town, which I liked very much. It could have been in Alsace or in the southwest, anywhere in France. But Les Sables-d’Olonnes, the beach where Julien takes his wife and daughter for a family holiday, that was in the novel. It’s where Simenon spent his vacations. La Charente-Maritime on the Atlantic coast was his favorite part of France.
LB When Julien Gahyde goes home after his Thursday rendezvous with Esther Despierre, he changes his shirt. Later on, before the judge continues Julien’s interrogation, he also changes his shirt but for a different reason, because he’s spent the night working in his office.
MA Absolutely. We wrote that deliberately, to have the same gesture, the same act, performed by a man who’s afraid of being contaminated, who’s saying to himself: he’s guilty and I’m innocent. But with this parallel action I was getting at Simenon’s belief that all human beings are the same—all capable of the same criminal acts under propitious circumstances.
LB Simenon wore the same white shirt every day to write his novels. He had it washed every night. The lucky shirt.
MA I didn’t know he washed it every night.
LB Did you add a red thread to the story?
MA The heart-shaped drop of blood at the beginning, the red towel, Julien’s car, the red plum jam, the woman’s hair …
LB Were they all in the book?
MA The towel that Esther hangs from the window above the pharmacy to signal her availability, that’s in the book, but the color isn’t specified. There’s blood on Julien’s towel when he dabs his lip after she bites him, but no drop of blood on the sheet. As for the stain from the red plum jam, that’s totally invented. And the woman who played Esther’s husband’s mother, her hair happened to be red. I said, keep it that way, I adore it.