Zach Clark is the writer/director of Modern Love is Automatic, Vacation!, White Reindeer and Little Sister. His films have played across the United States and Europe at festivals including SXSW, Edinburgh, Outfest, BAMcinemaFest and Stockholm. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room opens with the sounds of sex and a constructive montage that explores both the titular space and the sweaty post-coital limbs of two lovers, our lead characters (Amalric and Stéphanie Cléau, who together also adapted the screenplay from a Georges Simenon novel). The syrupy strings in the score let us know we’re going to watch something that’s just self-aware enough to play with expectations without beating us over the head with anything. The framing reaches for Bresson, little pieces laid end to end that hint at a whole. We get scraps of information, locations, characters, while the actual plot remains aloof. There’s been a murder, but we’re not sure who’s dead or who killed them. Maybe it’s Cléau, maybe her husband, maybe Amalric, maybe not. It’s a clever little conceit, and the style functions as a sort of cinematic jigsaw puzzle whose grammar and aesthetics become steadily more traditional as the story’s mysteries are solved.
In thinking back on The Blue Room, and forming my opinion about it, I asked myself a few questions:
Q: Is this a good movie?
Q: Is it doing anything new?
A: Not really.
Q: Would I recommend it?
Q: Can you just wait to watch it on Netflix?
Q: Would it have been better if Bruno Dumont had directed it?
I haven’t seen any of Amalric’s previous directorial efforts, but I’ve always enjoyed his work as an actor. He has a great nervous energy, aided by his oversized eyes and generally frowny face. He had a fun little cameo in the last Wes Anderson movie, and seeing him in drag was my favorite part of Polanski’s Venus in Fur. And, on paper, there were several things that made me excited about watching The Blue Room.
First, the movie is really, really short. It’s 76 minutes total and the last three of those minutes are the end credits. As arbitrary as it is, I’m always excited to watch a movie that’s less than 90 minutes long. There’s a feeling of confidence that you’re getting just the essentials, no fluff. This movie easily could have been an hour and 45 minutes, but why waste everyone’s time?
It’s also in 4×3, the choice-y aspect ratio du jour. Hey, I loved Laurence Anyways in this aspect ratio! Heck, my biggest complaint about The Grand Budapest Hotel was that it wasn’t in 4×3 the entire time.
There’s full frontal nudity, too. Not just Amalric, who joins that exclusive club of filmmakers who’ve made you look at their penis (I think it’s Vincent Gallo’s turn to bring snacks to the next meeting), but there are also not one, but two shots of a vagina. France! I’m always up for the pushing of the boundaries of taste in art, and especially the integration of such elements into a narrative that actually calls for them. Amalric and Cléau’s affair is the jumping-off point for everything, so why not look at their actions directly and honestly?
To Amalric’s credit, the sexuality and nudity is well placed and never showy. It’s presented without the wink-winks that made Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac such a letdown. But as much as I’m a fan of brevity and think it’s fun to watch filmmakers reclaim cinema’s first aspect ratio, these two elements unfortunately yield a movie that by its end feels more like a really classy episode of a courtroom procedural and less like a bold new take on the classic murder mystery. In the grand scheme of things, however, I’d rather watch this than Law & Order. Its plot twists are earned and carefully revealed. It’s well put together with good performances. I just wish Amalric had stuck to his initial aesthetic guns and constructed something more labyrinthine, rather than using those ideas as an entry point to something that’s ultimately not that iconoclastic.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of “TV movies” lately. Not movies made for TV, but movies that you can totally skip in the theater without missing anything. As filmmakers, we should be composing images for the big screen, but we’re also kidding ourselves if we think that’s how the majority of people are going to consume them. Especially at a time when the best TV shows are more cinematic than most Hollywood movies, what makes a movie a movie is an important question, one we should be all be asking ourselves when we sit down to write our shot lists. Louis C.K.’s use of long takes and fractured narratives feels fresher and more modern than pretty much 95 percent of what I see at film festivals. As many people talked about True Detective’s fluid mastery as did about Gravity’s. The death of the theatrical experience isn’t the death of cinematic storytelling. The first time I saw almost all of my favorite movies was on home video, and there are countless great movies that I’ve never seen in a theater. But in an entertainment landscape where an audience basically has access to all content all the time, I do think there’s less and less room for middle-ground storytelling, especially when things like House of Cards are infusing what should be throwaway trash with a meticulous aesthetic, truly complicated characters and top notch performances.
I’m excited to see Amalric’s next effort in the director’s chair, I just sincerely hope he moves towards more fully embracing his ideas and away from merely competently executing a script. If we want to keep calling ourselves filmmakers, and not (ugh) content creators, it’s what we should all be striving for.
(Full disclosure: IFC Films released my last movie and IFC’s Sundance Selects is releasing The Blue Room. I have never met Mathieu Amalric, and actually until I wrote this I thought his last name Almaric and I had to keep reminding myself to spell it correctly.)