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 Amalric’s fourth feature loyally and effectively adapts (with cowriter Stéphanie Cléau) George Simenon’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 film’s focus is the locus of Julien’s expression of that crisis: a large, soupy set of guilty, guilty eyes.

Guilt, along with its sibling shame, flow from Julien’s eyes long before we have any grasp on what he might be guilty of. We know from the top that he’s been carrying on with a lover, Esther Despierre (Cléau), who’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 emotion—an electro-shocked retreat when Julien spots Esther’s husband walking toward their hotel hideaway, and a stricken, scolded glance at his inquisitor—rather than contextualizing exposition or dialogue. We’re free to interpret these expressions as confessions, or as a poker player’s tell, of guilt for the crime he’s eventually tried for. This being a murder mystery, that’s certainly an element of the game. Yet the pervasiveness of Julien’s guilt overwhelms all incidents and revelations that come to pass. This is a guilt that supersedes action—without necessarily negating or disproving it. It’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, it’s worth considering Amalric’s film with more respect than it’s thus far been given. Viewing it as a “small” or “minor” film, or as a mere exercise in style or genre, is not only a generally unhelpful act of diminution, but in this case overlooks Amalric’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 Esther—a statuesque, class-upgraded pharmacist’s wife—which Amalric, DP Christophe Beaucarne (shooting in the Academy ratio), and editor François Gédigier capture via vivid glimpses: naked legs intertwined, torsos and asses and mouths moving in concert, sweat glistening on chests, and Esther’s “Origin of the World” post-coitally exposed. It’s a near-overwhelming deployment of sexually tactile evidence, but crucial for understanding Julien’s later flashing back to these moments, which he does both out of increasingly fraught obsession, and to fill in the blanks of the gendarme’s (Serge Bozon) humiliating inquiry. Meanwhile that conflation is both imposed upon and generated by Julien, as the montage incisively and elegantly evokes. We’re in his headspace, living, reliving, and recounting, feeling and regretting ecstasies. There’s a violence to the sex (she often ritualistically, territorially bites his lip after they’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 Buñuel, he/we skip from his sad wife, Delphine (Léa Drucker, devastatingly undesired), to his ripe mistress, to his beloved daughter, Suzanne (Mona Jaffart). It’s a lurid progression, but also an honest one—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 “blue room” hideaway, but he’s no less fixated on the home life that he’d snuck away from, dove back into, and lost. It’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 what’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. He’s guilty about his affair, but he’s also guilty about not feeling what he’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. It’s what he’s supposed to do. It’s what he can’t do. That he has thoughts of hurting her—which Amalric plays with via a blessedly brief, tonally out of place, De Palma-esque “will he push her off a ladder into a glass coffee table?” sequence—can be used as evidence of what he’s capable of, but it’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 they’ve been together since their affair ended, and thus the first time they’ve been together since being, as we’ve come to divine, arrested for murder (the victim remains unclear until the final third), his stubborn lust for her—her formidable, sculpture-worthy profile, her lovely knee folded over the other—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 doesn’t matter—certainly not spiritually speaking—what he’s done. Once he’s lost his sense of self, even for the sake of true pleasure, he’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. He’s roused into a rage when Esther implies that Suzanne wouldn’t have been damaged by divorce, which again hints at a potential for violence but really just exposes his boundless guilt. He’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 he’s gone off a cliff.

For all of his gifts as a filmmaker—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 affair—it would be foolish to not point out how greatly Amalric’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 they’re just as silent, just as overtaxed and overwhelmed, yet from spiritually self-administered, rather than cosmically imposed, paralysis. Even while Grégoire Hetzel’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score swells and moans and conjures workmanlike mid-century Hollywood noir; even while Cléau’s femme fatale evokes both empathy and judgment with her Mona Lisa smile; and even while the film develops into a deft, economical policier, it’s Amalric’s eyes that tell the true crime story. In the film’s penultimate scene, when Julien realizes in court that he may have been set up by a witness, Amalric’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 he’s a living, breathing, selfish, conniving, desiring, disappointing son of a bitch. In other words, a human being. He never recovers.