Posted September 16, 2011 by Ben Winkley in Films

Mademoiselle Chambon

A romance of subtlety and considerable sadness.

A romance of subtlety and considerable sadness.

Jean is a man for whom the term ‘normal’ could have been coined. His life is his wife and his son, and his job as a builder. Jean seems most comfortable with his routine; happy certainly, unchallenged perhaps, but all is not what it seems, even to him.

His son’s new teacher, the titular Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon, shakes Jean from his comfort zone. Slender, elegant and cultured, she is unlike anyone else he has encountered. He is totally awed on their first meeting. Her apartment, where Jean goes to fix a window, is impossibly Gallic – French windows allow the breeze in amongst the book- and curio-strewn shelves, art prints and stylish furniture. She plays her violin for him and Jean falls further.

It’s apparent why Jean falls for Veronique. Few could resist. What does she see in him? Initially, a certain stability. Jean comes to school to deliver a ‘what Papa does for a living’ talk, and impresses with some modest, honest charm and an ability to engage with a class full of enfants. Her nomadic lifestyle, explained with simplicity, has left her craving certainty and she remarks on Jean’s strong, loving relationship with his elderly father, whom he visits regularly for a session of biblical foot-washing.

She doesn’t mention Jean’s relationship with his wife and child, but the meaning is apparent.Jean and Veronique dance around each other, paralysed by fear of what could happen next, trying desperately not to fall in love.

Central to the film is the conceit of how easily we can slip into an acceptance of how life is, based on how our choices once taken seem intractable, rather than pursuing what we really want or need. Slowly and beautifully, it demonstrates how this acceptance is so often based on the fear of what could go wrong down a different path, rather than the prospect of the exuberant joy that may occur if things turn out just right.

The film delves deeply into the internal struggle between selfishness and selflessness – should we, could we, do we? – it addresses how the chance seldom arises to take a leap into the unknown and examines the hurdles we place in front of ourselves when it does.

The attraction between the two leads remains mostly unspoken, as both know the ramifications of what each other is thinking and have no need, or desire, to voice it, for fear of what may be released.

The stilted conversation and awkward body language says it all. The superb performances of Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain are rendered all the more remarkable when one knows they were once married. Much credit is due to director Stephane Brize, who coaxes such convincing performances of a couple in love from two actors with an entangled real-life back-story.

Quintessentially French, Mademoiselle Chambon is a rare beast indeed – a proper, old-fashioned romance without a hint of the saccharine that Hollywood deems such an essential ingredient for a weepy. Mademoiselle Chambon will break your heart.

Ben Winkley