Film review: Mademoiselle Chambon

Duncan Wu finds drama in the smallest gesture in a finely nuanced account of an unexpected passion

September 22, 2011

Mademoiselle Chambon

Directed by Stéphane Brizé

Starring Vincent Lindon, Sandrine Kiberlain and Aure Atika

Released in the UK on 23 September

What makes a film "intelligent"? If the answer lies in a refusal to patronise its audience or an acute sensitivity to the nuances of human psychology, Mademoiselle Chambon fits the bill. Stéphane Brizé's film demands attentiveness and unabashed emotional engagement, because much of the drama is enacted with the smallest gesture - a glance or silence - rather than by speech. Indeed, the experience of watching this remarkable film makes one aware of how lesser film-makers than Brizé overuse language.

Freely adapted from Éric Holder's novel, the film tells the story of a builder, Jean, who lives contentedly with his wife and son in a French provincial town. One day he meets his son's teacher, Véronique Chambon, and falls in love with her. Vincent Lindon enacts this scene perfectly; he plays a contented man not given to adventuring or philandering, whose natural home is the building site, unexpectedly in the grip of a passion that will not release him.

Lindon is excellent not just in evincing surprise at emotions he has not previously experienced, but in articulating inarticulacy. Brizé shows him sitting alone, and by his skill as an actor - doing literally nothing - Lindon communicates all the confusion of a man whose life has not prepared him for a love awakened for the first time.

Sandrine Kiberlain is impressive as Véronique. Although more sophisticated than Jean, she is just as thrown by the emotions that spring up between them. There are a number of scenes in which she is shown at her flat, doing nothing other than pondering her emotional turmoil. It is a triumph not merely for the actress but for her director.

There is nothing pretentious about such understatement; indeed, it is all the more effective for being true to human experience. People sit alone in rooms all the time, reflecting on their lives - yet how often does one see it in films, or indeed any kind of drama? Mademoiselle Chambon is courageous not only for acknowledging such things as part of life, but for using them as drivers in its narrative.

Its theme will encourage comparisons with David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945), but Brizé's film could not be more different in style. Where Lean melodramatises, Brize eliminates theatrical elements as far as possible. It is no accident that Véronique has on her wall a poster illustrating the work of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi, the tone of whose cool, low-key interiors the film incorporates.

And where the theatrical staging of Lean's film makes it seem over-enunciated, Brizé shoots at an oblique to the action, catching people's heads from behind, so that we are compelled to intuit their expressions and emotions. The act of reading this film becomes something close to our experience of life, in which we are often compelled to make judgements on the basis of what is glimpsed rather than presented full on.

This kind of film-making makes demands of an audience. Instead of handing us its characters' inner lives on a plate, Mademoiselle Chambon demands a similar kind of imaginative involvement to that which we are more used to giving to novels or poems. Perhaps that explains why it has taken so long to cross the Channel (it was made in 2009). All I can say is that rewards for the viewer are greater here than in films that treat us as if we were incapable of understanding anything without having it stated in triplicate.

You could argue that Mademoiselle Chambon tells a story we have heard many times over, echoing those of Emma Bovary and Lady Chatterley, to name but two. Yet there is nothing hackneyed about the way it is imparted. This film should be judged by the freshness and immediacy of the emotions it evokes in us, not the vintage of its plot. Its intensity of vision is a tribute to the expertise of its makers.

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