Mademoiselle Chambon

Mademoiselle Chambon

****

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Tales of love affairs, or the struggle to resist one, within and across class and geographical divides, have long been a staple of the cinema. But, as director Stephane Brize shows in the accomplished film Madmoiselle Chambon, the ubiquitousness of the story in cinematic history doesn't mean there isn't space for a director to try to take a new look at an old sexual dilemma.

Eschewing howling confrontations, stalkings, the smashing of furniture and slaps across the face (not that those can't constitute the fallout from affairs in reality), director Brize instead focuses on the inner pain of her characters, what they don't say rather than what they feel free to allow to burst out. In France, long the stereotypical country of liberated romance, it seems social customs, family bonds, fear and self loathing still have plenty of weight on the opposing scales. It is somewhat simplistic to call this the 'French Brief Encounter' though this film clearly is paying homage to David Lean's classic, but this kind of film definitely won't be to everyone's tastes and will appeal more to those who prefer their 'affair drama' narratives slow-burning and the characters almost painfully restrained.

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Vincent Lindon is Jean, a middle aged builder who seems to have the perfect though somewhat routine village life with his wife, Anne- Marie (Aure Atika), and son, Jeremy, in a small provincial French town. We see in the opening few minutes of the film Jean at work and at home, a man seemingly happy to knock down walls and put them up again, read to his son, and relax at home with a simple bowl of soup. Jean seems a restrained, somewhat taciturn figure, far from unintelligent, but his burliness, skill at manual work, dirt and dust on his nails and checkered lumberjacks shirts, all subtly suggest a more blue-collar station.

In stark contrast there is Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), Jeremy's school teacher. Unlike the firmly-rooted Jean, she is only in town on a year's contract with the school, and several quiet but tense scenes where we see her call her mother suggest she has deep- rooted reasons for rarely staying long in any place, and staying as far away from home as possible. She's an accomplished violinist, a collector of classical music and reader of high literature. She's elfin-slim, elegant, mysterious and unobtainable.

After a chance meeting when he has to pick Jeremy up from school instead of his wife, the two find themselves drawn to each other despite being virtual strangers. She asks Jean on impulse to speak about his career at the school to the pupils, his obvious decency and hard-working ethic clearly attracting her further. Despite being an odd pairing, they draw closer, and tensions soon begins to build as the two weigh up, silently and separately, the dangers of giving into their desires.

The dance towards an affair proceeds with little dialogue and none of the more conventional fireworks that one might expect, this is more of a graceful chamber piece where everything is under the surface. Much of the time we are invited to sit with the characters in their private moments as the camera fixes in long takes on their faces for what seems like eternity. The key decisions the characters make and the agonies they go through occur when they are apart rather than together.

The film is lusciously shot - this is French provincial town life captured on camera in the full of summer, almost begging one to give in to the desire for romance. But it is also a town where a man like Jean has a rooted life, a seemingly good one, with commitments and responsibilities he chose rather than were forced on him. The plot is not so simplistic or cheap as to portray Jean's home life with Anne-Marie as unbearable and thus justifying in the audience's eyes an escape into Veronique's arms.

In fact the desires within him are as much a threat as a liberation - there seems so much to lose. And when Veronique finds herself later in the film considering settling down in the town when her headmistress offers to make her contract long-term, she too is clearly facing a previously undreamed of upheaval. This is love as a disturbing energy rather than a healing and nourishing force, and this is no more clear than when a sudden revelation by Jean brings the love triangle to a climax.

There are a few false notes - scenes where Jean's conflicted desires boil over into harsh words with his wife and attacks on his workmates seem a little cliched, and perhaps the film does surrender a little to sentimentality at the end. But these are small flaws in an otherwise subtle, small but very competently directed and acted piece. Madmoiselle Chambon won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2010 Cesar awards, an award well-deserved.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2011
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Mademoiselle Chambon packshot
Jean, his loving wife and son live a simple, happy life. At his son's homeroom teacher Madamoiselle Chambon's request, he volunteers as substitute teacher and starts to fall for her delicate and elegant charm.
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