One of the unexpected delights of this year’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2010” series is Stéphane Brizé’s “Mademoiselle Chambon,” which, like Cedric Kahn’s “Regrets,” also concerns a man’s temptation to leave his wife for another woman. However, instead of Kahn’s overheated theatrics, Brizé opts for a quieter, lower-keyed mood, resulting in a beautifully made film, revolving around the superb and sensitively played central performances by Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain.
Jean (Lindon), a construction worker, picks up his son from school after his wife Anne-Marie (Aure Atika) hurts her back at the printing factory where she works. There he meets Véronique (Kiberlain), his son’s homeroom teacher and the “Mademoiselle Chambon” of the film’s title. Things between them start out innocently enough when Véronique asks Jean to speak to the class about his job. But then she asks Jean to fix a drafty window in her apartment, and from there it’s easy to guess where that eventually leads.
What makes “Mademoiselle Chambon” such a special film is its nuanced and complex layering of character development and its loving attention to details. Jean’s processes of construction work are afforded extended time, giving us the sense of a man who takes pride in his work, and puts great care into it. One of the best scenes in the film is the one in which he explains his work to his son’s class; he tells them that his favorite aspect of construction is the idea that by building a home for someone, he can essentially create something from nothing. It is clear from this scene that Jean has never had the opportunity to articulate these ideas before, and it gives him great satisfaction to express his feelings about his work. He is especially pleased by the children’s curiosity and questions about his job. This is what makes Véronique so attractive to Jean; she allows him to discover parts of himself that he never knew existed. This becomes even more evident when Jean visits her apartment to replace her window, and he finds out that she was a concert violinist before teaching. He asks her to play for him, and while at first she is reluctant to open up a period of her life that she left behind her, she finally does play for him, shyly performing a piece with her back to him, following Jean’s suggestion. Their attraction to each other grows largely because each affords the other potential new life possibilities. Of course, the one huge barrier to their relationship is the fact that Jean already has a family, and a life that will not be that easy for him to leave.
“Mademoiselle Chambon,” adapted by Brizé from Eric Holder’s novel, is as carefully crafted as one of Jean’s houses, and just as sound in its construction. Events unfold in a quiet yet profound manner, never resorting to cliché or lazy convention. This and the great performances in the film make this one of the major finds of this year’s series.