Chambre Bleue, La (2014)

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An illicit affair leads to murder!
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vt The Blue Room
France / 76 minutes / color / Alfama, Arte France Cinéma, Centre National du Cinéma et de L’Image Animée, Canal+, Ciné+, Cofinova 10, La Région des Pays-de-la-Loire, Le CNC Dir: Mathieu Amalric Pr: Paulo Branco Scr: Stéphanie Cléau, Mathieu Amalric Story: La Chambre Bleue (1964; vt The Blue Room) by Georges Simenon Cine: Christophe Beaucarne Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Léa Drucker, Stéphanie Cléau, Laurent Poitrenaux, Serge Bozon, Blutch, Mona Jaffart, Véronique Alain, Paul Kramer, Alain Fraitag, Christelle Pichon, Olivier Mauvezin, Joseph Ancel, Marie-Agnès Renard.

In the small French town of St. Justin, farm-machinery merchant Julien Gahyde (Amalric) has been having an affair for the past eleven months with pharmacist’s assistant Esther Despierre (Cléau); the pair might have been childhood sweethearts had Julien’s family not moved out of the area. In the interval before his return, both of them got married, Julien to Delphine (Drucker), now mother of his child Suzanne (Jaffart), and Esther to the rich but sickly Nicolas Despierre (Mauvezin). The illicit couple meet clandestinely on occasional afternoons in the Blue Room (so-named because of the color its walls are painted) of the Hôtel de la Gare.

Esther (Stéphanie Cléau).

Julien (Mathieu Amalric).

One day, between bouts, Julien sees from the Blue Room’s window Esther’s husband Nicolas, apparently making his way intently toward the hotel. This sparks both of the lovers into a rethink of their relationship. Julien realizes how much he loves—needs—his wife Delphine and more especially daughter Suzanne, and, on the pretext that Suzanne has recently been looking a little poorly, takes his family off for a holiday at the seaside, hoping this will rekindle his fire with Delphine.

Esther, by contrast, decides that the fates intended that she and Julien should be together but somehow circumstances got in the way and thwarted the fates’ plans. The obvious thing to do is alter the circumstances.

Nicolas (Olivier Mauvezin).

Delphine (Léa Drucker).

When Nicolas dies one night, everyone assumes it was just the consequence of his chronic heart illness—everyone except his mother Edvine (Alain), who owns the pharmacy. She believes he was poisoned by Esther to gain her freedom—after all, even though the lovers believe they’re being ever so discreet, the entire town, with the possible exceptions of their luckless spouses, knows about their periodic liaisons at the Hôtel de la Gare.

Julien, remaining for the most part steadfast in his resolution to put his relationship with Esther behind him, starts to receive odd little anonymous notes that are obviously from her—notes with messages telling him not to be afraid and, most alarmingly, that it’s now “your turn.”

And then Delphine is found dead, poisoned by a laced jar of the special home-made plum jam she liked so much, a fresh consignment of which Julien had just picked up for her from Esther’s pharmacy . . .

The psychologist (Blutch . . . and not, as you might think at first glance, Salman Rushdie).

The juge d’instruction (Laurent Poitrenaux).

We learn much of the story through flashbacks from Julien’s questioning in prison by the juge d’instruction (Poitrenaux) and his analysis sessions with the prison psychologist (Blutch). The picture he paints of himself is of a weak and irresolute man being buffeted around in his course through life by the dominating Esther, her dominance underscored by the fact that she’s quite a lot taller than he is, his submission to her signified by the fact that, although he clearly loathes her habit of biting his mouth, painfully, after bursts of lovemaking, he always finds some way of not telling her so.

This is often billed as an erotic thriller, and in a few sequences there’s certainly a startling amount of flesh on display, but really there’s little by way of eroticism unless you haven’t seen those bodily bits before. (There’s a distinctly erotic romanticism, though, but I don’t think that’s what the classifiers quite mean.) Rather, in true Simenon fashion, it’s a study of the darkness into which love can lead the unwary. Julien, we sense, is genuinely, as he claims, not so much a bad man, despite his adultery, as one who’s far too easily manipulable.

And we can almost sympathize with his femme fatale when she admits, with something close to innocence, that she merely hurried Nicolas out of this world with an overdose of the digitalis he took for his heart condition because, heaven forfend, he might have hung around for years and gloomy years if not assisted on his way. Right to the end of the movie we don’t know for sure if it was she who put the poison in that fatal plum jam or, boxed into a corner by her insistence that it was “his turn,” the malleable Julien.

Edvine (Véronique Alain).

In this final ambiguity the movie differs from the novel, as it does in such trivia as the characters’ names. Although the juge d’instruction (investigating magistrate) plays a not insignificant role in the movie’s telling, the novel has him much further foregrounded, letting the reader know more of his backstory, which backstory accounts for his degree of emotional involvement in the case. In other respects, though, the screen adaptation is remarkably faithful, including in its narrative structure—which obviously brings to mind the question: Why the name changes?

Director/star Mathieu Amalric is almost certainly most immediately recognizable to the American or UK eye as the villain Dominic Greene in the 2008 James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. After a distinguished career as a screen actor—he won a César for his role in Comment Je Me Suis Disputé . . . (Ma Vie Sexuelle) (1996; vt My Sex Life . . . or How I Got into an Argument)—he moved into directing, gaining the Best Director Award at Cannes in 2010 for Tournée (2010; vt On Tour), a movie that was nominated for no fewer than seven Césars, although surprisingly it came home with none. In 2017 Cannes awarded him its Prize for the Best Poetic Narrative for his movie Barbara (2017)—about the chanteuse and not to be confused with Barbara (2012) dir Christian Petzold, which is on the longlist for coverage here.

Returning to La Chambre Bleue, the movie was nominated for the Prix un Certain Regard at Cannes and its script for a César. Amalric and his costar and co-scripter here, Stéphanie Cléau, are partners, and have a son.

Simenon’s novel was earlier brought to the screen in the Mexican–Spanish production La Habitación Azul (2002; vt The Blue Room) dir Walter Doehner, with Patricia Llaca, Juan Manuel Bernal, Elena Anaya, José María Yazpik and Mario Iván Martínez. Although I haven’t seen this previous adaptation, I gather it has a more resolved ending and caused controversy on release, especially in Mexico, for the amount of nudity it portrayed not just on screen but in early versions of the poster.

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On Amazon.com: The Blue Room (English Subtitled)

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5 thoughts on “Chambre Bleue, La (2014)

  1. The book was the first Simenon I read, and I loved it — it remains a favourite of mine in an area of crime fiction I don’t really rate; not see either film, and I’m no sure there’s anything above to convince me to track this down in spite (or maybe because…?) of my enthusiasm for the source novel. However, I’m glad Amalric has done a faithful job; changing too many aspects could produce a weirdly uneven narrative, as it’s a very poised piece of writing with a very clear purpose that could be lost if too much tinkering was allowed.

    • I’m no sure there’s anything above to convince me to track this down

      Then I have failed — sob! — in my task.

      I was surprised by how very much I enjoyed this movie. Of course, the fact that it was French helped — anything that caters to my francophilia has a good head start! — but there was something I found highly engaging about it beyond this and beyond even Simenon’s tale. The filming’s quite beautiful in places, too.

      • Haha, well don’t forget that I’m a curmudgeon with no TV, no Netflicks (Netflix? Neither looks right…), no Amazon TV sign-up thingy, and about four DVDs. The moving image is increasingly passing me by…

  2. Rather amazing as of late how the output of Georges Simenon maintains a wide embrace of so many filmakers’ source materials. Just two weeks ago I saw two films by the French master Bertrand Tavernier that were based on Simenon novels. Unfortunately I have not seen this more recent (award winning) adaptation but will put on my ‘must see’ lineup! Yes as you note Matthew Almaric is pretty well known on these shores not only for that Bond but also for Spielberg’s MUNICH. i thought he was utterly magnificent in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY.

    A thoroughly riveting and beautifully penned treatment, one that makes quite the persuasive case too. Rather odd that the adaptation isn’t as erotic as one might expect.

    • Yes, it’s rather as if Simenon is undergoing a revival (as if he needed one!) on all fronts: he seems more of a household word among readers than he was even just a decade ago. Of course, part of it may be due to the series of new translations that Penguin is releasing — giving the books a new lease of life, so to speak. I must read more of them myself . . .

      Still envious about your Tavernier festival!

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