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Mademoiselle Chambon

Ordinary People: Mademoiselle Chambon

In Mademoiselle Chambon, Stéphane Brizé’s tightly made, bittersweet little film about an improbable romance, the director gets more from a pared-down style than most directors can achieve with a large kit of techniques, devices, and emphases. Brizé etches portraits of need, longing, and regret with an often severe economy of means. But there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of feeling in his film, one that eventually threatens to break its calm surface.

The single lady of the title, Veronique (Sandrine Kiberlaine), is an elementary school teacher in a French provincial town—“not a fun town,” in the semi-apologetic words of her principal. She’s a quietly earnest, taut-faced but appealing blonde in her mid-30s. In her class is the eight-year-old son of Jean (Vincent Lindon), a 40-something residential construction worker (or “builder”). When he picks up the boy one day in place of his injured wife, she extends an impromptu invitation to take part in the schools’ parents-explaining-their-work program, and later they arrange for him to repair the window frame in her flat.

Before long, he’s discovered she’s also a violinist and asks her to play for him, explaining that he once heard someone play on TV and was enthralled (not that he uses such a word). She reluctantly agrees when he suggests he stand behind her as she plays to alleviate her shyness. All this decidedly homey charm could well be humorously naïve or ridiculous in other hands, but Brizé gets away with it, or just about. His tone of understated but grave sincerity deflects irony and condescension. And it works even better as these two repressed people circle around and try to resist their inconvenient mutual attraction.

He’s abetted by his actors. Lindon convinces one of Jean’s barely discerned yearning for something richer and finer than his life of duty and family ties provides. And Kiberlaine quietly makes palpable Veronique’s upper-social-echelon, emotionally arid background, and her attraction to this seemingly straightforward, uncomplicated man who harbors unused powers of sympathy and passion. This isn’t some neo-Lawrentian gamekeeper and fine lady symbolism, but a portrait of real people. If there’s any antecedent for this, it may be Brief Encounter, Noel Coward’s play about the conflict between British stiff-upper-lip dutifulness and love. But this film wrings as much poignance as Coward’s work with less plot and far fewer words. Its reticence makes the dramatic buildup more telling. Brizé uses inarticulation and silence to great effect.

Two or three scenes nearly succumb to self-conscious sentimentality, but Mademoiselle Chambon succeeds by according its characters a dignity as they seek, haltingly, a fate life hasn’t yet allowed them.

Watch the trailer for Mademoiselle Chambon

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