'Mademoiselle Chambon" explores sensuousness of longing
Not all the French hang out in the bistro, sipping cognac and discussing arty things. What's interesting right away about Mademoiselle Chambon—literally, from the very first image—is the thoughtful way it sets up a working-class milieu. Jean (Vincent Lindon), a construction worker, spends his days ripping out drywall and mortaring bricks. His wife, Anne-Marie (Aure Atika) works on an assembly line. When they help their little boy, Jeremy, with his grammar homework, they are as mystified as he is about the test questions, but the three of them gamely work their way through the lesson together and come up with the correct answer.
Writer-director Stéphane Brizé, working from the novel by Eric Holder, observes in succinct and leisurely detail the comfortable life the family has made together in a provincial country town (where Jean is also primary caretaker of his elderly, widowed father). Jean is surprised when Jeremy's new teacher, Mademoiselle Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain) invites him to speak to the class about his job; no one has ever found his work interesting before. She hires him to repair a broken window in her rented apartment; later, over coffee, he asks her to play the violin he's noticed among her things. Too shy to face him, she turns away to play an exquisitely melancholy piece, and, in a beautifully evocative sequence, the music haunts him all the way home, a portal into the passion and mystery of an entirely different way of living that begins to alter the way he views his own life.
Filmmaker Brizé traffics in the sensuousness of nuance and longing. A scene when taciturn Jean accompanies his aging father to help pick out a coffin says everything about Jean's shifting perspective, and renders more obvious bits of dialogue (like a discussion on whether something broken is better off fixed or changed) almost superfluous. It's also intriguing that Mlle. Chambon herself, while younger than Jean, is not some sexy ingénue; in a few precisely-limned moments (especially a terse phone call with her mother), she emerges as a woman approaching a certain age who has never been able to either settle down or fulfill her own potential.
Lindon and Kiberlain (real-life spouses when the film was shot) generate a subtle but tangible chemistry. If some of the choices these characters make are disappointing as the story plays out, a little manipulation of plot can be forgiven in this touching, well-constructed morality play.
MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON ★★★
With Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain. Written and directed by Stéphane Brizé. A Lorber Films release. (Not rated) 101 minutes. In French with English subtitles.
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