Mademoiselle Chambon (Lorber Films, NR)

The most powerful of emotions are indicated not by dialogue, but with the smallest of gestures and changes in expression.

The predominant mood of Mademoiselle Chambon is one of exquisite longing that is at the same time sweet and painful, rather like a slightly dissonant musical chord. Director Stephane Brize, who also co-wrote the Cesar-winning screenplay (adapted from a novel by Eric Holder), tells a simple story about two people whose lives briefly crossed and awakened desires they didn’t know existed, at least not for them.
Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain) is an itinerant elementary school teacher (she generally stays a year at each posting) assigned to work in a provincial town. A series of coincidences brings her in contact with Jean (Vincent Lindon), father of one of her students, who is a devoted father, husband, and son and a successful builder. Veronique hires him to repair a window in her rented flat, and while working he notices a violin and asks her to play something. After some urging she does, and the combination of her beauty and the music awakens feelings in him for an undefined something that lies beyond his limited experience of life. Meanwhile, Veronique has noticed that Jean offers something lacking from her disconnected, achievement-oriented existence. The subject of the film becomes the working-out of this conflict among two people old enough to know the risks inherent in heedlessly following their emotions.
Brize lets the story unfold at an unhurried pace with lots of long takes and a strong visual style. The most powerful of emotions are indicated not by dialogue, but with the smallest of gestures and changes in expression. The supporting cast is very strong, including Aure Atika as Anne-Marie, Jean’s wife, Arthur Le Houerou as their son Jeremy and Jean-Marc Thibault as Jean’s aging father.
Mademoiselle Chambon celebrates the simple joys of family—a scene of Jean washing his father’s feet is as tender as anything you’ve ever seen on screen—to underline just what would be threatened should the two principals decide to act like love-struck teenagers. It’s also a love letter to the solid values of honest work (again and again the camera focuses on Jean doing construction labor) and the beauties of provincial France. A muted palette of earth tones and unfussy cinematography by Antoine Heberle match perfectly with the Brize’s understated storytelling style.
Mademoiselle Chambon feels a lot like an updated Gallic version of Brief Encounter, David Lean’s 1945 film, from a play by Noel Coward, which positively feasts on the conflict between turbulent emotion and middle-class restraint as experienced by a provincial housewife (Celia Johnson) and physician Alec (Trevor Howard) who meet by chance in a railway station. Mademoiselle Chambon keeps its eye firmly on the main story, however, so there’s no equivalent to Brief Encounter’s parallel plot of love among the lower classes. And thankfully there’s no Rachmaninoff thundering on the soundtrack: Elgar’s “Salut d’Amor” plays a key role in the plot of Mademoiselle Chambon, but overall the soundtrack is spare, making the rare instances of non-diegetic music all the more powerful. | Sarah Boslaugh

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