They don’t make movies like this anymore, a fact that director Mathieu Amalric immediately emphasizes with The Blue Room’s boxy old Academy ratio. Though set in the present-day French countryside, this crime tale operates according to very traditional conventions. It’s based on a 1963 mystery by the prolific Georges Simenon, who got his start in crime fiction during the 1920s. Best known here for his Inspector Maigret mysteries, Simenon was a strict technician of plot and genre—those may be outdated notions today, but Amalric respects them scrupulously in this disquieting fat-free procedural.
We meet Julien (Amalric) during one of his regular hotel-room trysts with Esther (co-writer Stephanie Cleau), also married, a biter in bed. There’s something fierce and unbridled about her lovemaking—part of her appeal to Julien at first. Later he’ll have cause to question that ferocity. Scenes of their affair and its aftermath alternate unsparingly with Julien’s testimony to police, prosecutors, and lawyers. The Blue Room is all about withholding: Not until midway through do we learn who—apart from Julien—is alive, dead, or on trial for what crime. At home Julien’s got a lovely wife (Lea Drucker) and daughter whom he dragged back to his old village, where Esther and the other locals have cause to know him as something more than a successful tractor salesman. But again, that information is concealed, and Amalric carefully controls the slow drip of damning detail.
Amalric, of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Quantum of Solace, is blessed with one of those shifty, quick-eyed faces that makes it nearly impossible to trust Julien. He’s always calculating in what he says and reveals to Esther, his wife, and the authorities. Even if he’s completely innocent, Amalric plays him as if guilty. (Would you buy a tractor from this guy? Not very likely.) I’d hesitate to call The Blue Room a wrong-man thriller in the classic Hollywood sense, and Amalric leaves the ending open for you to judge Julien’s final culpability. Outside the courtroom, the swarming media have branded him a monster, which gives The Blue Room a certain kinship with Gone Girl. Unlike Ben Affleck’s befuddled adulterer Nick, Julien seems like too smart a guy to have ended up in such a mess. But he chose the wrong woman, Esther, and that stupidity may be the real crime here. Opens Fri., Oct. 24 at Meridian and Varsity. Not rated. 75 minutes.