Sometimes style is not enough. Great films like Citizen Kane dazzle with tricky shots and complex compositions but for good reasons. If a movie’s pretty shapes and colors gull even sophisticated moviegoers who live for novelty, and yet there isn’t any payoff or substance, most of the dazzle will ultimately feel like a cover-up. Director Mathieu Amalric, who played a Bond-film bad guy and Jean-Do in the The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, knows film craft well; he’s built a visually entrancing vehicle around himself as a pensive cheating husband in this crime tale based on a Georges Simenon novel. The look of The Blue Room constantly startles us in pleasurable ways: naked bodies, resort beaches, even the contents of an examining magistrate’s desk create an alluring enigmatic mood. The look is undeniably ravishing.
Even more than the visuals, we’re caught up in the movie’s daring structure. It keeps putting the cart before the horse and then pulling it all away. We know we’re in a whodunit police procedural a long time before we even learn what was done. Meanwhile, the story keeps jumping tracks from languid afternoon sex in a (blue) hotel room to a police interrogation and then back again to fill in the gaps. The sound design is also mysterious and acute, with phrases from one time period cleverly intruding into actions of the past and vice versa. To complete the immersive experience, we get Grégoire Hetzel’s music, which urges us into deep Bernard (Vertigo) Herrmann territory — everything sounds lush, cosmic, and sinister.
So what’s the problem? Maybe it seems slight, but this crime drama ends with the very expected — the payoff feels more like a Puritan’s sermon than a savvy sex and crime jaunt from France. The music even changes into tinkly silent-film piano toward the film’s whimpering end. Make no mistake: It’s mysteriously beautiful and enigmatically complex up to the point where the payload drops. And then we have little choice but to shrug off a stylish little morality tale.