Perhaps the great of all dramatic conceits is the idea that love descends upon us like a plague of locusts, an all-consuming storm that leaves the landscape utterly desolate except for the potential for renewal.
Perhaps the great of all dramatic conceits is the idea that love
descends upon us like a plague of locusts, an all-consuming storm that leaves
the landscape utterly desolate except for the potential for renewal. Though
there are moments when passion kicks in doors and guns down hapless bystanders,
the reality of love for most people is that of a mouse scurrying around unseen
until someone notices tiny paw-prints all over the butter, after which its
presence is ubiquitous. Based on a novel by Eric Holder, Stephane Brize’s
Mademoiselle Chambon is an
impossible delicate love story that replaces grand passion with pregnant pauses
and the desperate search for protective euphemisms.
Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a builder living in Paris with his wife and
child. Ostensibly quite content to work and spend time with his family, Jean
finds himself tongue-tied when his son’s teacher Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain) asks him to appear
at a career’s day in order to talk about what it is like to be a builder. New
to the area and seemingly quite alone, Veronique reaches out to Jean and asks
him to come and replace one of her windows. Initially, the pair’s interactions
seem merely polite and professional but as time spent together leads to rather
than less formality, it is clear that a crackle of mutual attraction exists
between them, a crackle that both Jean and Veronique are loathe to acknowledge.
Mademoiselle Chambon is a film that lives and dies by its awkward
conversational pauses. These kinds of pauses will be familiar to fans of
European art house film as they are widely used in that cinematic tradition to
create an impression of psychological depth, the idea being that if you have
the characters do something unusual and then allow the audience the time to
speculate about why they did it, the insights they gain seem more profound and
intelligent than if the characters had delivered them through dialogue.
However, while these kinds of pauses usually hint at such unpalatable emotions
as rage, sadness and alienation, Brize uses them in order to denote the
presence of deep but well-hidden passion. Mademoiselle
Chambon never directly addresses
the love between Jean and Veronique, instead it traces the outline of their
desire in the minutiae of everyday life. For example, the film communicates
Veronique’s blossoming desire for Jean by lingering on him while he talks about
how to build a proper house. Jean says that you need a firm foundation in order
to support the walls but Veronique hears that he is a stable and thoughtful man
who does what he does with care, attention and thoughtfulness. Similarly, when
Jean decides to back away from Veronique for the sake of his marriage, he
begins to over-react to his wife’s minor complaints about unrelated matters.
Thus we do not see Jean’s love for Veronique except in the reflection cast by
his anger over his wife’s problems.
Regrettably, while Brize’s attempt
to sketch the negative space around Jean and Veronique’s love works beautifully
for the first couple of acts, his decision to show the couple having sex
effectively breaks the spell. Having invited us into the intimate space that
the couple kept so well hidden, asking us to step outside of that sacred circle
for the final act proves oddly unsatisfying. In fact, one could even argue that
breaking the spell of intimacy forces us to look upon the couple’s quiet
courtship as purely self-indulgent. Given that they’ve had sex, why would they
go back to being coy if not out of some desire to revel in the surreptitious
nature of Jean’s extra-marital dalliance? This may be overstating things
somewhat but Mademoiselle Chambon’s final act remains somewhat problematic.
This is something of a pity as, this misstep aside, Mademoiselle Chambon is a wonderfully off-beat take on the
traditional French relationship movie. Brize’s direction is intricate and yet
unadorned while the film’s cinematography lends the proceedings a light
airiness that is a perfect match for the film’s breathy emotionality. Also
impressive is Lindon’s performance as Jean, the more you see of this actor
(particularly after his sensational turn in Fred Cavaye’s Anything for Her),
the more you are convinced that his shabby intensity makes him the legitimate
heir to Depardieu. Kiberlain also
does well despite her part being somewhat underwritten. Indeed, while Jean’s
low-key emotional responses flow from his shame about being an adulterer,
Veronique has no reason at all for being this emotionally restrained. A little
frustration might have gone a long way.