The policiers of Georges Simenon make a tempting target for screen adaptation. They are not only well-drawn but drawn in a simple, appealing style. Written quickly, they tend to feature not so much character development as character intrigue -- which could be easily mistaken for a blueprint -- and unlikely plots that, in Simenon's hands, draw you in and somehow always make sense. If you think the world is mysteriously made up of foibles and their humans, he's your man.
So it must have seemed to the actor Mathieu Amalric, who directs and stars in this 2014 Cannes Un Certain Regard entry "La Chambre Bleue" (The Blue Room). It all begins simply enough: a man and a woman make love in a hotel room. She bites his lip in passion, he bleeds; a pattern has been set. Lying about it afterwards, Esther (Stephanie Cleau) asks Julien (Amalric) if he could imagine a life together. He says yes, he could imagine it, though he's distracted, not hearing her clearly. Not wanting to, perhaps. But seriously, she says, if I was suddenly free...? We could get used to it, he says. What do you mean, she asks?
Good question. But then, he should ask, What do you mean? When Julien goes to the window, he sees Esther's husband outside, on his way in. Julien runs off, putting on his clothes for the chambermaid and others to see, and home to his wife and daughter. What happened to your lip? asks the girl. Hit it on a post, he says, it's nothing. Mommy, she says, Daddy hurt his lip. Mommy (Léa Drucker), blonde and sweet, looks puzzled, wary, as if she suddenly wonders if she understands everything. Julien owns a John Deere distributorship, a success, and they have a nice modern home and family. He looks at her with love and fear, as if he suddenly wonders if he's in something over his head, and begins to think about repair and loss. He may already be too late.
So far so good. Amalric the actor ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Grand Budapest Hotel") makes an excellent Simenon character; he's both everyman and, with his impish good looks, not quite. His Julien really is the guy you knew from school who could make a success of himself and then blow it all on a hot brunette. Amalric the director, who won best director at Cannes for his "On Tour" in 2010, also seems a good match with his author, at least for a time. The film moves along steadily, neatly, intriguingly, but when the story gets a bit more complicated, so too does its telling. Julien is suddenly under arrest before we know what for exactly; he's interrogated repeatedly, by police, a psychologist and a judge (Laurent Poitrenaux). Esther's husband has died, for one thing; more comes out as the story builds to a murder trial.
Ironically, perhaps, the policier aspects of Simenon's tale prove Amalric's ultimate undoing. It is one thing in the hands of the author, going here and there as he pleased, but that doesn't translate so easily to film. At least not this one, although Amalric comes tantalizingly close in the scenes with Poitrenaux's magistrate, who seems a far more interesting character than any of the others but remains on the sidelines, alas. With Amalric jumping back and forth from past to present, the ins and outs of the case, what happened or what didn't, bog down what had begun so simply, and some elements of the puzzle are left unclear. The characters, especially Esther, remain merely intriguing, only hints of the apparent darkness inside. Or not? Regardless, when the lovers' fate becomes clear, it elicits not much more than a shrug – from them as well as the audience.
What feels profoundly human in Simenon, here feels merely sketchy; we're left wanting more. Still, "The Blue Room" has its moments, including Drucker's light presence as Delphine and Christophe Beaucarne's sharp, clean cinematography (in Academy formatting). Gregoire Hetzel's lush score seems out of sync with the rest of this reined-in production; it's as if he and Amalric decided the film needed something. Too much, too late.
"The Blue Room" opens Friday, October 3 via Sundance Selects.