“Mademoiselle Chambon,” a pensive French film about family and love and possible infidelity, doesn’t rush to passion or indulge in Hollywood glamour, but proceeds at a leisurely pace, filled with looks and long silences.
The film, based on a novel by Éric Holder and adapted to the screen by Florence Vignon and director Stéphane Brizé, focuses on Jean (Vincent Lindon), a builder of houses. Jean’s wife, Anne-Marie (Aure Atika), and he work together at everything it seems, even helping their son Jérémy (Arthur Le Houérou) with his homework. Jean also regularly visits his father (Jean-Marc Thibault), at a rest home and washes his father’s feet as a sign of both affection and duty.
But one day, when his wife is ill, Jean picks up his son and meets his teacher, Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain). The titular Mademoiselle Chambon asks him to perform a small favor, then another. And Jean then learns that she once played the violin, which he asks her play for him. She and the music move something within him, leading the two to something more in their relationship.
Comparisons have been made between this intimate French film and the 1945 British film “Brief Encounter,” which was based on Novel Coward’s 1936 one-act play, “Still Life.” That also featured classical music (“Piano Concerto No. 2” by Sergei Rachmaninoff). In “Brief Encounter,” however, both the man (Trevor Howard) and woman (Celia Johnson) are married. The woman finds her marriage cold and loveless. The man, a doctor, aspires to practice more meaningful work. In the play, the audience is left with the question as to whether the affair is ever consummated. In the movie, middle-class moral standards are upheld and their only possible moment for physical passion is thwarted.
In “Mademoiselle Chambon,” Jean and his wife have a simple, loving life, and his growing attraction to his son’s teacher causes him to pick fights at home and at work. Jean is a man deeply entrenched in his community and family, but his life is also mired in middle-age responsibilities. Véronique is estranged from her family, purposely avoiding long-term attachments to places and people.
Vignon and Brizé’s adaptation won a César Award for Best Writing-Adaptation. Sandrine Kiberlain and Aure Atika received César nominations for Best Actress and Best Featured Actress, respectively.
On the more personal side, Kiberlain and Lindon are married but were separated when this film was made. During the 1990s, Lindon was also once known for keeping company with Princess Caroline of Monaco, not insignificant background knowledge that gives this production some added interest.
Brizé pays attention to details, sometimes using minor instances to replace dialogue. Consequently, this is not a verbose film — the movie is about the suppression of feelings. Much is implied, and this might make it too slow and too static for some. Lindon’s Jean is not a man of words; he’s a man who is sure with his hands and unsure about this sudden emotional stirring he feels for music and this teacher.
This is a small quietly elegant but emotionally powerful movie about minor incidents and decisions that have large personal consequences.
Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly.