Written and Directed by Stephane Brize
Kino-Lorber Films (DVD), 2010
French movies have this subtle way of creeping under the skin and some times finding space in my heart. Stephane Brize’s “Mademoiselle Chambon” fits neatly into this category. At the heart of the movie, a trio of characters, home builder contractor Jean (Vincent Lindon), school teacher Veronique (Sandrine Kiberlain) and Jean’s wife, Anne-Marie (Aure Atika) round out the love triangle.
As viewers, we are shown a happy family at the beginning of the movie ironically, the parents helping their son, Jereme (Arthur Le Houerou) with a grammar assignment. However, after Jean’s wife injures her back at a factory job, Jean meets Jereme’s teacher Veronique–young, vulnerable, lonely, and wistful. We learn that she recently arrived in town and knows few people. The character doesn’t divulge this information in a conversation, but we learn her situation through a conversation between Anne-Marie and Jean, as well as, a phone message Veronique’s mother leaves on voice mail. The writer-director’s method of delivering backstory contributes to the movie’s mystique. So little is revealed about the characters, except through body language, the characters’ gazes falling on each other, and other facial expressions. This takes exceptional acting talent to pull off, which this cast does with aplomb.
The relationship between the characters builds slowly with slight gestures. Jean installs a new window in Veronique’s apartment and then they bond over a piece of classical music by Hungarian composer Ferenc von Vecsey Veronique plays on her violin. But then tension builds and moods explode. Veronique grows sullen after Jean tells her about his wife’s new pregnancy. Jean becomes irritated striking out at his wife in angry words and he takes his frustration out on his co-worker. The wife in turn becomes suspicious. She figures out that her husband had an affair with the school teacher, she doesn’t erupt in histrionics, like an American actress would do in a Hollywood movie. The performances in “Mademoiselle Chambon” unleashes the power of subtlety leaving this tragic story to deliver its blows with a velvet glove.
While the movie features top-rate performances, Sandrine Kiberlain’s (who’s also a French pop singer), portrayal of a lovelorn teacher who roams from school to school, and barely escapes pressure from her overly ambitious family (her older sister is married and appointed to high court in Paris), lingers long after the movie’s ending. The look of hope dashed as she stands on the train platform awaiting her lover to join her, tears at a viewer’s heart. And like most European cinema, this movie ends on an ambiguous note. Viewers construct their own future scenarios for the characters.
If you choose to view this movie, prepare yourself for emotional storms–not of the Hollywood variety, but come as subtle reminders that fate rips the lives of kind people apart too. The famous French filmmaker Jean Renoir once said to never judge a person because we all have reason for doing what we do–good or bad. “Mademoiselle Chambon” reminds us of Renoir’s sentiments about his fellow humans. This movie too feels drenched in humanity –foibles, desires, and responsibilities.