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'The Blue Room' a tantalizing mystery of lovers on trial

'The Blue Room' a tantalizing mystery of lovers on trial
A scene from the film "The Blue Room." (IFC Films)

There are two blue rooms in the spellbinding new feature by actor-director Mathieu Amalric: the provincial hotel room where a couple conducts an adulterous affair, and the courtroom where they later stand trial for murder. Just who they're accused of killing is only gradually revealed in this taut mystery.

What tantalizes is the way the story moves between their private passion and their public shame, the way then and now become synchronous. Amalric navigates the shifts with a lapidary precision.

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With his costar Stéphanie Cléau, Amalric has adapted a novel by the prolific Georges Simenon (creator of the detective Maigret), stripping it down to its essence. "The Blue Room" opens, like the book, in the heat of erotic enchantment, captured with bracing directness and beauty. There are warning signs, too, in the bedchamber where Julien (Amalric), a successful farm machinery rep, and pharmacist Esther (Cléau) rendezvous. Their excitement is laced with doom: the bite that leaves him bleeding, her pointed questions about his wife, the sight of her husband through the window.

The scene will play out again, in pieces, at the police precinct, where the dogged prosecutor (Laurent Poitrenaux, excellent) reads back the couple's intimate conversation. It's now part of an official transcript, and Julien listens in a state of disbelief. He's in over his head and, it becomes increasingly clear, was from the get-go.

Cléau, a non-actor who works mainly as an adapter of texts for theater, is remarkably unself-conscious. Over the course of the story she effects extraordinary changes in Esther's demeanor. But they're really changes in her lover's perception. Every revelation registers in the gifted Amalric's gaze: infinitesimal physical mutations, emotional detonations.

"The Blue Room."

MPAA rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity.

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Playing at Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles.

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