The Look of Defilement
By Eric Hynes
The Blue Room
Dir. Mathieu Amalric, France, Sundance Selects
The truth, such as it is, resides in the eyes.
Mathieu Amalricâ€™s fourth feature loyally and effectively adapts (with cowriter StĂ©phanie ClĂ©au) George Simenonâ€™s heart-dagger of a novel, retaining its scrambled chronology, as well as its carefully scattered evidence, red herrings, turnabouts, and subjective perspectives on a murder that makes the plot go round. But these are secondary, literally surface matters in a film motivated by the inner, psycho-spiritual crisis of its protagonist, Julien Gahyde (Amalric). The filmâ€™s focus is the locus of Julienâ€™s expression of that crisis: a large, soupy set of guilty, guilty eyes.
Guilt, along with its sibling shame, flow from Julienâ€™s eyes long before we have any grasp on what he might be guilty of. We know from the top that heâ€™s been carrying on with a lover, Esther Despierre (ClĂ©au), whoâ€™s not his wife, and soon thereafter we hear, and then see, him being legally deposed about that affair. But even such table setting is generated via inward-directed emotionâ€”an electro-shocked retreat when Julien spots Estherâ€™s husband walking toward their hotel hideaway, and a stricken, scolded glance at his inquisitorâ€”rather than contextualizing exposition or dialogue. Weâ€™re free to interpret these expressions as confessions, or as a poker playerâ€™s tell, of guilt for the crime heâ€™s eventually tried for. This being a murder mystery, thatâ€™s certainly an element of the game. Yet the pervasiveness of Julienâ€™s guilt overwhelms all incidents and revelations that come to pass. This is a guilt that supersedes actionâ€”without necessarily negating or disproving it. Itâ€™s a Catholic guilt. A guilt that comes from sin, yes, but from a notion of sinfulness that incorporates thought as well as deed. A notion that conflates, as Jesus states in the Gospels, culpability for things wished for and fantasized about with the fulfillment of those things.
For this reason, or rather, for this reason for starters, itâ€™s worth considering Amalricâ€™s film with more respect than itâ€™s thus far been given. Viewing it as a â€śsmallâ€ť or â€śminorâ€ť film, or as a mere exercise in style or genre, is not only a generally unhelpful act of diminution, but in this case overlooks Amalricâ€™s laudable, ambitious, and ultimately illuminating use of genre to explore this complex spiritual state of heart and mind. Underneath the cool, spare, elliptical surface beats a troubled, thorn-crowned heart. See Chabrol; feel Bresson and Rohmer.
Of course, thought/deed conflation aside, Julien definitely does some things. The opening moments see him engaged in passionate rutting with Estherâ€”a statuesque, class-upgraded pharmacistâ€™s wifeâ€”which Amalric, DP Christophe Beaucarne (shooting in the Academy ratio), and editor FranĂ§ois GĂ©digier capture via vivid glimpses: naked legs intertwined, torsos and asses and mouths moving in concert, sweat glistening on chests, and Estherâ€™s â€śOrigin of the Worldâ€ť post-coitally exposed. Itâ€™s a near-overwhelming deployment of sexually tactile evidence, but crucial for understanding Julienâ€™s later flashing back to these moments, which he does both out of increasingly fraught obsession, and to fill in the blanks of the gendarmeâ€™s (Serge Bozon) humiliating inquiry. Meanwhile that conflation is both imposed upon and generated by Julien, as the montage incisively and elegantly evokes. Weâ€™re in his headspace, living, reliving, and recounting, feeling and regretting ecstasies. Thereâ€™s a violence to the sex (she often ritualistically, territorially bites his lip after theyâ€™ve come), and a violence to the crosscutting, but more importantly a violence to the collision of time, space, and sensation. In a sequence worthy of BuĂ±uel, he/we skip from his sad wife, Delphine (LĂ©a Drucker, devastatingly undesired), to his ripe mistress, to his beloved daughter, Suzanne (Mona Jaffart). Itâ€™s a lurid progression, but also an honest oneâ€”through the women of his life, and through the stations of his guilt. Love to lust to affection; boredom to fear to regret; purgatory to ecstasy to damnation.
Julien may be obsessed and haunted by his sessions with Esther in their â€śblue roomâ€ť hideaway, but heâ€™s no less fixated on the home life that heâ€™d snuck away from, dove back into, and lost. Itâ€™s in these scenes, within the dyad of marriage and the triangle of family, that his guilt runs wild. He freights a feeling of loss no matter whatâ€™s happening, a feeling cast back into his memories from a guilt-ridden present, but also in the moment-to-moment reality of a passionless marriage. Heâ€™s guilty about his affair, but heâ€™s also guilty about not feeling what heâ€™s supposed to feel. He tries to seduce Delphine, but feebly. He takes her and Suzanne on a beachside vacation, and tries to remember adoring her, tries to provoke himself into adoring her again. Itâ€™s what heâ€™s supposed to do. Itâ€™s what he canâ€™t do. That he has thoughts of hurting herâ€”which Amalric plays with via a blessedly brief, tonally out of place, De Palma-esque â€świll he push her off a ladder into a glass coffee table?â€ť sequenceâ€”can be used as evidence of what heâ€™s capable of, but itâ€™s also darkly relatable. Sometimes perfectly sane, physically nonviolent people have violent thoughts, and sometimes about partners with whom they feel resentment, entrapment. Whether or not Julien later committed an act of violence, his guilt over even considering it was already condemnatory.
When Esther appears beside Julien for a dual deposition, the first time theyâ€™ve been together since their affair ended, and thus the first time theyâ€™ve been together since being, as weâ€™ve come to divine, arrested for murder (the victim remains unclear until the final third), his stubborn lust for herâ€”her formidable, sculpture-worthy profile, her lovely knee folded over the otherâ€”is positively painful. Her very presence disrupts his self-torture. Nay, it deepens his need for it. What has become of this good man, this hardworking man, this respected boss, this appreciated and supported husband, this innocently adored father? Again, it almost doesnâ€™t matterâ€”certainly not spiritually speakingâ€”what heâ€™s done. Once heâ€™s lost his sense of self, even for the sake of true pleasure, heâ€™s no man. Esther still loves him, fearlessly stating that she still wants to be with him even as it weakens her case, but Julien is beyond being able to love. Having betrayed his wife, his family, his morality, he has only self-loathing and guilt to show for himself. Heâ€™s roused into a rage when Esther implies that Suzanne wouldnâ€™t have been damaged by divorce, which again hints at a potential for violence but really just exposes his boundless guilt. Heâ€™s fighting for a family that no longer exists, like a sleepwalker flailing into the dark, or a cartoon villain still motoring his legs long after heâ€™s gone off a cliff.
For all of his gifts as a filmmakerâ€”the greatest of which may be his shocking and rare anti-auteurism, having gone from the sprawling, Cassavetian ensemble piece On Tour to this spare and calculated affairâ€”it would be foolish to not point out how greatly Amalricâ€™s film depends on the greatness of his own performance. His dark, bulbous, concentrically limned eyes are among the most iconic of his generation, but rarely have they been tasked with expressing more than they have been here. Of course The Diving Bell and the Butterfly springs immediately to mind, but for stretches of The Blue Room theyâ€™re just as silent, just as overtaxed and overwhelmed, yet from spiritually self-administered, rather than cosmically imposed, paralysis. Even while GrĂ©goire Hetzelâ€™s Bernard Herrmann-esque score swells and moans and conjures workmanlike mid-century Hollywood noir; even while ClĂ©auâ€™s femme fatale evokes both empathy and judgment with her Mona Lisa smile; and even while the film develops into a deft, economical policier, itâ€™s Amalricâ€™s eyes that tell the true crime story. In the filmâ€™s penultimate scene, when Julien realizes in court that he may have been set up by a witness, Amalricâ€™s eyes register agitation, recognition, and for a brief moment, a desire for clemency, but it passes as soon as the witness leaves his sight. Alone again with his thoughts, with his guilt and shame, he casts downward in resignation, in choice, an inverted, God-punished Maria Falconetti.
In the beginning, which in this story coincides with somewhere in midlife, Julien Gahyde discovers that heâ€™s a living, breathing, selfish, conniving, desiring, disappointing son of a bitch. In other words, a human being. He never recovers.