On August 27th, Mademoiselle Chambon, will open at Minnesota Film Arts’ St. Anthony Main Theater. It’s a French film, by Stéphane Brizé, and adapted from a novel by Eric Holder. An elementary school teacher, Ms. Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain) clicks with a work-a-day dad, Jean, (Vincent Lindon) whose son she teaches. They click all the way into a tryst.
The trouble starts after she asks him to talk to her class about his work, construction. He agrees, with a shrug. He comes. He talks. He answers the students’ questions. He has a good time. Ms. Chambon likes Jean.
These are at Mademoiselle Chambon’s foundation.
This slowly becomes an affair. Jean and his wife, Anne-Marie, follow a predictable, seemingly content life with their son. They are manual laborers. One in construction, the other in a factory. And then Jean and we meet Mademoiselle Chambon. The predictability and contentment begin to crumble. The film starts in a deceptively daring way: it’s slow and tests our patience, and our typical conspicuous desire for action and fast-paced cutting. From the first POV shot where Jean glances at Ms. Chambon, from behind her as she sits atop a student’s desk, you know what will follow.
This meeting is supposed to be between parents and teacher. He has her undivided attention because his wife has fallen ill at the factory, and is on bed rest at home. The question to be answered: how deftly will, the director, Ms. Brizé execute their tryst? A fundamental and slippery rule of storytelling is to be predictable, but make sure that we’re surprised how it’s delivered. The tranquil and gentle tone and pace could lull us. But the way in which Jean and Veronique’s flirting grows from their lingering, even coy conversations, into something subtly disturbing is refreshing.
The key scenes are cloaked in the guises of window repair, music appreciation, and where Veronique plays music at Jean’s home, during his father’s birthday. Somehow that scene strikes notes that are sweet, and creepy, at once. These subtle scenes played so that each might go either in the impulsive and lustful path, or the sensible and responsible one. We see what the film and its maker are doing when the duo’s conversations creep into a kind of small talk, which only happens when you can’t yet dare yourself to say what you need to. Jean and Veronique’s relationship is told more through silence, and coy body language than any explicit sentiments, as opposed to a North American movies’ typically forthright sensibilities.
Neither of them is any more “at fault” for their attractions than the other; Jean pursues Ms. Chambon with as much interest as she does him. Ultimately Jean decides how and where their infatuation will go. That decision harkens to Richard Linklater’s mature 20-something romance, Before Sunrise, from 1991, where the défacto duo seriously asks each other whether they want to make love. Shall we do this when we’ll probably want more, and we have no idea if we’ll see each other after?
One more (ok, a few) open question: Each wants the other; each has found something that they lack in that other. Why is this story Mademoiselle Chambon’s; Why is it named for her? Won’t their wanderlust reap or wreak the most upon Jean and his family?
If we’re scoring this, 3.5 to 4, out of 5.