Can anyone do tortured longing and silent agony quite like the French? Probably not, and director-screenwriter Stéphane Brizé’s ill-fated love story, “Mademoiselle Chambon,” is the embodiment of everything you’ve come to expect from French films; it doesn’t say much, but it speaks volumes.
Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a house builder who lives a simple, but content life in a small French town with his factory-worker wife, Anne-Marie (Aure Atika), and their young son, Jérémy. When his wife is laid up with a small injury from work, Jean picks Jérémy up from school and meets his new teacher, Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), a delicate and quiet woman with an affection for the fine arts. Being unlike anything Jean has ever seen in his life that revolves around knocking down walls and building them back up, he finds her alluring, but intimidating.
In need of a parent to speak to her class about careers, Véronique asks Jean to come talk to them about building houses, which he agrees to with little hesitation. After telling the class that one of his favorite things about his job is knowing that building a home is like being a part of the lives of those who will live there, Véronique asks him if he will fix a drafty window in her apartment. While in her home, Jean discovers her collection of classical music, art pieces, and her violin, which he asks her to play for him, thereby planting a desire in him that he can’t seem to shake, which is further complicated when his wife tells him she’s pregnant.
What keeps “Mademoiselle Chambon” from being a completely tragic romance is that Véronique’s reasons for falling for Jean are never fully explored. His attraction to her is almost like that of a scientist to a newly discovered animal; he’s fascinated and bewildered by this creature that he doesn’t quite know how to interact with. But her draw to him isn’t as strong. When a woman like Véronique — an educated professional with an artistic soul — falls for a manual laborer who already has a family, her reasons should be made clear as the story progresses.
When Jean replaces Véronique’s window, she thanks him but mentions how she won’t be around too long to enjoy it; she’s a sort of itinerant teacher, who fills in temporary vacancies and can be moved to another school anywhere in France at any time. Presumably, she’s willing to pay for the replacement of the window to be able to see Jean, but the answer to the question of “why?” is never clear.
Despite their mutual attraction not being completely understandable, it’s a testament to actors Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain that it’s still believable. While not a movie heavy on dialogue, “Mademoiselle Chambon” is able to say everything it wants to in the faces of its two stars, from his confusion and inner conflict, to her hesitancy and loneliness. Lindon and Kiberlain were apparently once married—though now separated—and it’s their onscreen chemistry that is the heart of the entire movie and the reason you can almost get past Jean and Véronique’s unlikely pairing.
“Mademoiselle Chambon” seems to suffer a bit under the strain of being a full-length movie. While it would be a shame to lose some of the gorgeous shots of the French countryside or Jean’s touching scenes with his elderly father, there doesn’t seem to be enough story for the film. It’s no secret that European films tend to not operate on the hyper-speed of most American movies, but what could have been a very moving 40-minute short strains as an overly exposed 100-minute feature. The characters of Jean, Véronique, and Anne-Marie are where every emotion and conflict live, and a tighter-focused film with just the three of them would make “Mademoiselle Chambon” a more engaging story.
Bottom Line: The character portrayals and the cinematography are where “Mademoiselle Chambon” truly shines. But the story it’s telling tends to be too drawn out and not drilled to the depth it needs to be for an audience to truly feel for Jean and Véronique’s unfortunate attraction. It’s a film that left me with a half-and-half reaction; I didn’t love it, nor did I dislike it. It’s a film for those who like emotions first and foremost, with a cohesive story following at a distant second.
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