Mademoiselle Chambon epitomizes true French cinema in the best possible sense. Forgoing the dramatic action-packed scenes and a blazing love affair in favor of an achingly subtle romance, Mademoiselle Chambon is an appeal to the heart and mind. This film dismisses conventional American cinema and goes back to the basics with a simple plot and simple acting, entwining hauntingly beautiful melodies throughout the plot to convey unspoken emotion.
Characterized by desirous looks of longing and torturous angst, Brizé’s film is an exploration of what happens when a man is so much a prisoner of his own desire that he eventually breaks down and engages in a forbidden romance. The film effectively throws out George Sand’s interpretation of the happy sort of love and gives the audience a glimpse into the uncertainty and the unknown of unattainable love.
Brizé’s protagonist Jean had a simple life. He was a hard-working mason with a loving wife and son at home. His major priorities in life included providing for his family and caring for his aging father. His life had a certain easy rhythm to it with no problems or roadblocks, even his name is ordinary.
Enter: Mademoiselle Chambon, the shy and unanticipated femme fatale.
Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain) is his son’s quiet and reserved grammar school teacher, who asks Jean (Vincent Lindon) to talk to the students about his work in construction. As Jean begins to explain the importance of the concrete foundation for a stable building, it’s obvious that something piques Véronique’s interest — perhaps her desire for a more stable life between family and work.
After the class, Véronique asks Jean to have a look at a broken window frame in her loft. He returns later that week to repair the window frame, and the two engage in a dance of sorts, not quite knowing how to act and at the same time testing the barriers of what is and what is not appropriate.
When Jean stumbles upon an old photograph of Véronique playing the violin, he smoothly convinces her to play a tune for him. Almost embarrassed she responds, “It’s been ages since I’ve played in front of anyone,” to which Jean gently responds, “Stand with your back to me … so you’re not in front of me.”
With the sensually sweet sounds of Hungarian composer Ferenc von Vecsey in the background, the two are unable to suppress their intense longing. A romance ensues, triggered by these deep emotions, each yearning for an escape; Véronique seeking an escape from instability, him from the monotony of his life.
Their hidden affair inevitably leads to problems, as the simplicity that once marked Jean’s life is overturned, as the stability of his marriage and work life begin to crumble. As buried emotions are unearthed and uncertainty is explored, their hidden romance becomes harder and harder to control.
The skillfully subtle acting is reflective of the actors’ brilliantly developed characters. There are subtle nuances of facial expression and body language that are intensely effective in conveying the torturous longing that typifies love.
Mademoiselle Chambon also typifies ideal French cinema in its deviation from the happy and conclusive endings with which we are so familiar. But the French know that the inconclusive ending stays with the audience. Resolved conflict is almost instantly forgotten, but the unresolved is thought provoking.
This film is flawlessly in tune with torturous desire that accompanies impossible love.