The 'Chambon' Affair: Yearning, Played Legato

Sadrine Kiberlain

Chanson d'une sirene: Veronique (Sandrine Kiberlain) and her violin strike at the heart of a married man in Stephane Brize's marvelously restrained romance. Lorber Films hide caption

itoggle caption Lorber Films

Mademoiselle Chambon

  • Director: Stephane Brize
  • Genre: Romance
  • Running Time: 101 minutes
Not Rated

With: Vincent Lindon, Sandrine Kiberlain, Aure Atika

In French with English subtitles

(Recommended)

A simple bricklayer finds his world rocked by a mysterious schoolteacher in Mademoiselle Chambon, a deceptively low-key movie about not knowing what you're missing until it suddenly appears.

On the surface, Jean (Vincent Lindon) epitomizes contentment. Happily married to Anne-Marie (Aure Atika), an earthily attractive factory worker, and father to an engaging young son (Arthur Le Houerou), he has settled into the routines of middle age with uncomplaining placidity. Life consists of cement-mixing and picnics, card games and caring for his aging father (the wonderfully expressive Jean-Marc Thibault). It's quite a while before we notice that we have never seen him smile.

Then his son's new teacher, Mlle. Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), invites him to talk to the class about his work. As Jean explains about the importance of foundations and the need for durability, the camera crawls towards the teacher's face, and it's clear that construction is the last thing on her mind. But the window in her apartment needs replacing and his trowel is available; she learns he has a way with glass and he discovers she can make a violin sing. By this point the screen is fairly twanging with repressed passion, and if you're not holding your breath then you're not paying attention.

Vincent Lindon i i

Bricklayer Jean (Vincent Lindon) pretty much has his life figured out -- until an encounter with Veronique threatens the very foundations of his family. Lorber Films hide caption

itoggle caption Lorber Films
Vincent Lindon

Bricklayer Jean (Vincent Lindon) pretty much has his life figured out -- until an encounter with Veronique threatens the very foundations of his family.

Lorber Films

Inspired by Eric Holder's novel and directed with a magnificent obsession for detail by Stephane Brize, Mademoiselle Chambon is an almost unbearably subtle meditation on longing and the road not traveled. The screenplay (by Brize and Florence Vignon) allows everything to happen in the gaps between words and the silences between scenes; emotions flicker but rarely ignite. This contemplative approach to temptation is so antithetical to the bodice-ripping pace of the average Hollywood love affair that audiences may find their patience strained. (And in truth the film would not have been harmed by a little less stasis and a little more heavy breathing.) But what this soap lacks in suds it more than makes up for in emotional intelligence: Rarely have actors been required to do so much with so little.

In fact, were it not for some of the best acting I've seen all year, this Gallic Brief Encounter would be doomed. The two leads were married but separated at the time of filming, a connection that might have lent an extra level of intimacy to their onscreen amour fou. Whatever the reason, this classic scenario of blue-collar, blue-jean guy lusting after a coolly refined, professional woman never feels clichéd. Lindon, effortlessly sexy in that ruggedly understated David Strathairn way, is one of those singular male actors who know the difference between vulnerable and weak, giving Jean a persistent melancholy that's ineffably touching. When Jean watches the teacher play an Elgar sonata at a birthday party, his entire face sags with hopeless yearning.

Throbbing with subtext and missed opportunities, Mademoiselle Chambon unfolds in a fuzzy, autumnal glow (courtesy of cinematographer Antoine Heberle) that's at once delicate and rich. As its brilliantly choreographed — and appropriately modest — climax proves, given the right ingredients, even the simplest story can leave you gasping. (Recommended)

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