Thursday, October 23, 2014

He's caught in a trap

A challenging French thriller with passion at its core.
Sometimes, a movie should be welcomed for what it doesn't say as much as for what it articulates.

That may be the case with The Blue Room, an uneasy and ambiguous thriller starring and directed by Mathieu Amalric, the French actor who may be best known to American audiences for his performance in 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

You'll find none of the insistent daring that marks a movie such as The Birdman. Nor will you find the kind of sharply obvious ironies that were etched into much of Gone Girl.

But Amalric's movie struck me as every bit as daring as either of those movies.

From the disturbing asymmetry of its images to a collection of characters who won't be pinned down, The Blue Room qualifies as one of the year's stand-out entertainments.

The story begins in a hotel where Esther (Stephanie Cleau) and Julien (Amalric) are having an apparently torrid affair.

To emphasize the ferocious physicality of their attraction, Esther bites Julien's lip. A drop of blood falls on a white sheet. I can't remember whether this was before or after Esther opened her legs and briefly revealed her public mysteries to the camera.

The term "Hitchcockian" has suffered from critical over-exposure, but it's appropriately applied to a movie in which otherwise banal sights can be made to feel creepy or at least unsettling.

Among those sights: Julien's sleek modern home in the French countryside where he lives with his wife (Lea Drucker) and his daughter (Mona Jaffart).

Yes, both Julien and Esther are married, which adds a discomfiting element to their affair.

Esther, we learn, is married to the town pharmacist, a wealthy fellow who we never meet, but who will turn up dead before the movie's done.

Amalric keeps us off guard by parcelling out the story in the form of flashbacks that are revealed as Julien is questioned by the police and later by a judge (Laurent Poitrenaux) about his wife's death.

Esther and Julien are being charged with murder, making us wonder whether they contrived to eliminate both their spouses so that they could live together.

Take special note of the dismissive deftness with which Amalric handles the late-picture courtroom scenes; they're dispatched with briefly, almost as if he's sweeping them past us with a broom.

That's as it should be: The Blue Room isn't about guilt or innocence -- at least not the kind that can be determined in courtrooms.

Both Esther and Julien's wife Delphine remain mysterious. We wonder if Esther might be cunning or even insane. Delphine always seems to play her cards close to the vest. We're not sure how much she knows.

Julien, on the other hand, seems increasingly exposed, a confused man who -- like many film noir figures -- doesn't quite know how he ended up where he is.

I can help: He's in the middle of a thriller that poses more questions than it's willing to answer -- and is all the better for it.

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