Is it the heaviness, or the slowness inherent in your adaptation project of The Red and the Black by Stendhal which precipitated the launching of The Blue Room?
No, it’s really just to meet Paulo Branco in the street during the shooting of Roman Polanski’s film. Paulo, he is like a soothsayer, he felt I would need centuries for Stendhal. It is deeply moving when someone tells you « Do something, shoot! Don’t you want to do something in three weeks ? » I searched, and there it was, we all have a book by Simenon that we found and read some day in the country house of we-no-longer-know-who. I don’t even know where this book comes from, who I stole it from. It is a book that I had already used for On Tour. In the scenario, we had call the final scene « the blue room », and there it was: a man and a woman. What does finally remain in life, apart from two bodies attracted to each other?
Very quickly, I said to myself: in four weeks, this, The Blue Room, is something I can do. It turned out that the rights to the novel were free, which surprised me a lot. There are so many people who wanted to bring it to the big screen: Maurice Pialat went very far into the adaptation, with Jacques Fieschi. Catherine Deneuve was supposed to do it with André Téchiné. Depardieu asked Chabrol to think about it. It is even said that the Dardenne brothers...
It’ surprising that The blue room should follow On Tour. One could imagine that The Blue Room is a way to turn your back on On Tour to do the opposite of an almost Dionysian film, which advocated letting go and movement.
I haven’t thought about that at all. It was rather a novel that haunted me for a long time, and written by Simenon, a guy who writes at full speed. Thereby inviting me to film quickly myself.
What also attracts me is the alloy of hot and cold, and what can drive men crazy: an illegible woman! “I mistook her for a cold woman, a haughty woman, a statue.” We are here facing the abyss of sexuality and attraction, which is unspeakable. What is fascinating with Simenon is that everyone forces him to put it into words.
When he wrote this novel in 1963, in Epalinges in Switzerland, Simenon was in a phase of permanent self-flagellation, such as “Women are witches, I shouldn’t have done it.” It is a novel of punishment regarding sexuality – or regarding his own exuberant sexuality. And with Stephanie Cléau - who adapted the novel with me -–we tried to erase it as we could.
I drew up a list of enemy films, films I had to knowingly discard, whatever their value. The Devil is a Woman by Josef von Sternberg for example: I did not want Esther to be a vamp. I wanted her to be just an unreadable woman, a priori without seduction weapons. For other reasons, Garde à Vue by Claude Miller was also an enemy film, as regards the interrogatories and the convocation of flash backs.
Also, there was the simple pleasure of the whodunit, who killed who? Who is dead? With this structure going backward.
Precisely, this complex narrative structure, like a mosaic, does not seem to help making a film in a short time, particularly at the stage of editing.
At the stage of the screenplay, written in two columns, we already wanted the sound and image to make war on each other, which leads to a particular narrative arrangement. Therefore, I managed to have the most time possible for editing. The schedule permitted it, since we shot in two parts, in July and in November, with the ability to start editing in the meantime.
Beyond that, we really had to work upstream, to insist on the preparation. With a real, full criminal record, updated with the help of forensic scientists, compared to what could be done in 1963.
I knew it would be a short film, B movies type, in the spirit of Jacques Tourneur’s films produced by RKO - including a film entitled Nightfall. Angel Face by Otto Preminger was also a flagship.
At what point did the choice of the 1/33 format step in? - A format that Americans called the classic ratio, which was a bit obsolete before Gus Van Sant with Elephant and Wes Anderson with The Grand Budapest Hotel updated it.
It came very early, in the presages of the conception. In The Blue Room we are dealing with lonesome and held up characters. I knew that there would be no camera movements to bind, to join the protagonists together. Even in the love scenes, where we focus on reminiscences rather than on openly sensual things, it is not sensuality, nor caress. And therefore, it does not allow virtuosity. The use of Panoramic is not suitable when it is that frozen.
It is obvious at the beginning of the film, where blood, sweat, semen, are like impeded by large fixed shots, almost inserts, which pictorially evoke vanities or still lifes, which will suck up sensuality.
As in the first sentence of the novel: the moment induces afterward decomposition.
Not everyone uses it for this purpose, but here, the 1/33 is intended as a format that isolates, that traps?
With Christophe Beaucarne, the Director of Photography, we asked ourselves, after having done some tests: whether to use Widescreen or 1 /33. Very quickly, the latter format imposed itself. Christophe thought that it washed his eye. We live in a time where everything is elongated; we need only to see the size of the postcards we sell now. Therefore, we chose the opposite view. And the sensuality of the Cinemascope did not seem to fit this relationship.
We decided to focus on still shots, but without religion. One could see it as a joke but sincerely the aesthetic is not very far from the one of Derrick, as simple as that. No harmony, rather jarring. No ostentatious staging, just enough to follow a story, to the first degree.
We indeed feel a rejection of the doxa that accompanies the fixed shots. Often, we associate fixed-shots and duration, with the risk of complacency sometimes. Here, the stills are particularly short, sharp as a blade or a sash announcing the fatal outcome.
On the contrary, the first kiss - at fall in the forest, is accompanied by a camera movement and treated in post production to signify that we are in the wrong register, and that they shouldn’t have done it.
In addition to this sequence, the idea was always to tap the same nail, to insist on this thing one cannot name, a non-shareable miracle, out of life, out of everything, which is the mystery of attraction between two bodies, which only belongs to two people. We tried to make this attraction to somehow gangrene the character of the judge.
What also touches me a lot with Simenon, is that we are all alike, no one is safe, and I think it’s very honest of him.
The story has a very steady tempo, particularly with regards to the revelations. As we peel an onion, to borrow a metaphor from Simenon. However, doubts remain: Who killed? Nothing is certain, even if it is understood that Julien is primarily a willing victim. Was it clearer in the novel?
Much less. In the novel - which once again really puts self-flagellation forward - he is indeed a willing victim. We tried to remove that as much as possible.
I wanted this permanent pleasure of doubt, first of all on him, then on the fact it’s possible that she is not guilty either. With Simenon, there is often the idea that lovers would be innocent.
Concerning the role of the mother, I insisted a bit, I even re-did a shot in the pharmacy. Editing, we had been too subtle on the mother, and it was hard to understand what goes through Julien when he listens to this “red-haired woman.”
Did you already know, while writing it with Stéphanie Cléau, that the roles of Esther and Julien would be for you both?
Stéphanie is an adapter for the theater, she is not an actress at all, she is even the opposite of an actress –to have her picture taken is already torture for her. And that interested me. This woman, we do not know who she is, she embodies the threat of the unknown. Intrepreting Julien myself, it was interesting for my official wife to also be an official actress. If the lover also had a recognizable face it would induce, as always, a rivalry between two actresses, which I did not want.
And there this the game with the couple: we play lovers while we’ve been living together for nine years; it has to do with the unspeakable once again.
On several occasions, the music reminds me of Georges Delerue, including the score he created for The Woman Next Door. And it is at that time that I came to realize the obvious relationship between the two films.
Of course, I immediately thought of The Woman Next Door. I also knew that Truffaut loved Simenon, including The Blue Room that he knew very well. After having seen The Woman Next Door again with Stephanie, it appeared to us as essential to remove the “punishment” side, dear to Simenon. It is on that level that The Woman Next Door was a guide.
To get back to the music, at first I did not see the need for it. And then, thanks to The Woman Next Door, thanks to Hitchcock then Preminger, appeared the idea oflyricism. One day, Stephanie put a disc of Ravel, the Prelude to the Night from Rhapsodie espagnole and everything was there. The music therefore came from Ravel, relayed by Bernard Hermann. We started editing the film with Ravel and Dimitri Tiomkin: lyricism and anguish. I needed warmth, and at that point I thought of Grégoire Hetzel, who had already made the music of Wimbledon stage and who is not afraid to go there. There was room for the music to take charge of this aspiration, for the lovers, to go there together.
To summon Bernard Hermann is not innocent. We talked about Truffaut, and then Hitchcock: “to shoot love scenes like murder scenes”. There is also this rather astonishing sequence, the one of the ladder and the glass table where you confront the notion of suspense.
There were these words Esther sends, including the notorious “your turn”. How to get someone to understand that it also means “your turn to kill”?
In the novel, there is exactly this dialogue, this scene between the two spouses. It happens at the table, he has been drinking, he gets angry, and that’s all. I was looking for something, I did not know how to do it. And then came the story of the seasons, Christmas decorations, and there I found it. With the help of Grégoire’s music, a surging anxiety.
You mentioned Hitchcock, Tourneur, Preminger. Other marks appear: Chabrol of course (who adapted Simenon), and by extension, Fritz Lang’s American period, the one of Beyond a reasonable doubt.
Yes, Lang, indeed, especially in the sequence of the trial. Chabrol, I had a feeling I did not even need to worry about it, it would necessarily be there - the bourgeois drama, the passion, the provincial town. But without Chabrol’s causticity, absent from Simenon’s writing, a writer of great tenderness.
The difficulty of the trial was to come to the point where the viewer does not tell himself he will attend a resolution, to project him onto something else. And there is Stendhal, The Red and the Black, which came back and helped me enormously - this is also why the character is called Julien, like Sorel. Simenon was also crazy about Stendhal. There is a clear link between the treatment of the trial in The Red and The Black and the absence of Tony / Julien during the trial of The Blue Room. Not to be in the hope of a turn of events, but to end up upward, in a novelistic and lyrical style. I wanted the lovers to be able to talk through the blue tapestry. By chance, the tapestry of the court, with this pattern of bees, allowed it. We tried the romantic challenge: make it or break it. We thought we could go that far, that the film could accept it
Interview conducted in Paris, 8th of April 2014