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The simplest of stories can be elevated by first-rate acting and directing. Consider Stephane Brize’s “Mademoiselle Chambon,” a French film that achieves a subtle but devastating impact. It tells a familiar story of an extramarital romance, but what makes it unusual, especially among French films, is that the couple spend most of the movie fighting rather than surrendering to their attraction. Think of it as a latter-day “Brief Encounter,” another repressed romantic classic with lots of classical music on the soundtrack. The film will earn fine reviews wherever it plays, but given its deliberate pacing, this may not be enough to captivate a restless American audience.
Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a construction worker happily married to Anne-Marie (Aurore Atika). But when he happens to meet his son’s teacher, Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), his whole universe is turned upside down. The teacher is also a violinist, and when Jean hears her play, he is enchanted. The fragile, ethereal Veronique is quite unlike his earthy wife, and Jean has a rugged masculinity that obviously intrigues the sheltered schoolteacher. Both Jean and Veronique resist the attraction, especially when Jean learns that his wife is expecting a second child. Shattered by his apparent rejection, Veronique decides to leave town, and this brings the romantic triangle to a climax.
Brize favors static compositions involving very long takes, and while such a measured style can often be deadly, “Chambon” is riveting. This is partly because of sharp, unexpected touches in the writing. (The adaptation of Eric Holder’s novel is by Brize and Florence Vignon.) All of the characters burst out of stereotype. The apparently macho Jean proves to have a gentle, hesitant side that only makes him more appealing. He is devoted to his aging father, and in one scene laced with delicate humor, father and son visit a funeral home to make advance payment on the father’s casket.
In addition to unpredictable writing, the film is enhanced by perfectly modulated performances from all the actors, including Arthur Le Houerou as Jean’s curious young son. Many of the best moments depend on unspoken reactions that Brize’s eloquent camera captures. When Jean invites Veronique to play a piece by Elgar at his father’s birthday party, he stands transfixed and shaken by her performance; the film then cuts to a close-up of Jean’s wife observing him, and she recognizes the threat to her marriage just in these few moments of rapt silence.
As the relationships move toward a resolution, the tension builds expertly. The final sequence at a train station benefits from superb editing. By the end of this modest but compelling film, viewers are likely to feel at once drained and deeply satisfied.
Venue: COLCOA (Lorber Films)
Production: TS Productions
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Sandrine Kiberlain, Aure Atika, Jean-Marc Thibault, Arthur Le Houerou
Director: Stephane Brize
Screenwriters: Stephane Brize, Florence Vignon
Based on the novel by: Eric Holder
Producers: Gilles Sacuto, Milena Poylo
Director of photography: Antoine Heberle
Music: Ange Ghinozzi
Costume designer: Ann Dunsford
Editor: Anne Klotz
No rating, 101 minutes
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