Mademoiselle Chambon: A Masterwork on Love

m_chambon4The great French film Mademoiselle Chambon, based on a novel by Eric Holder, never strives for greatness. It just gently saunters there with a majestic, relentless vision of an impossible love.

From the opening scene of a picnic where two parents awkwardly try to help their son with his grammar assignment (what is a “direct object”?), director and co-screenwriter Stéphane Brizé sends forth his simple plot along with nary a shove.

Jean (Vincent Lindon), the dad, is in construction: he builds houses. Anne Marie (Aure Atika), the mom, works at a printer, assembling books.

One afternoon, Mom twists her back, and Dad must pick up Jérémy (Arthur Le Houérou) at school. There Jean meets Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), the teacher.

Right away there is a tension -- sexual sparks are about to fly -- but the couple seems unaware of that possibility. Or they won’t allow themselves to acknowledge this attraction. After all, Jean is happily married, and Véronique, although single and new to this quiet town hours from Paris, is not on a hunt for companionship. She has her music. Her violin.

Then one day another child’s father can’t show up to discuss his job with Jérémy’s class. Will Jean substitute?

He will.

Afterward, there’s the matter of Véronique’s drafty windows in her tiny apartment. Would Jean have any advice on how to solve this windy dilemma?

He does.

For payment, Jean asks Véronique to play her violin for him. The shy teacher at first refuses, but then in one of the most romantic scenes of recent cinema, she agrees, but only with her back to him.

But do the pair make love?

As Desportes noted in Cléonice:

“Amour et un enfant sans prudence et sans yeux,
Trop d’avis et d’esgard sied mal à sa jeunesse.”

“Love is a child that lacks both sense and sight,
Keen wit, keen vision ill befit his youth.”

Jean and Véronique will have to battle their better senses to connect. Whether they’ll succeed is never clear. And is "succeed" the correct verb to employ here?

With superb, natural performances by the entire cast, lovely understated cinematography by Antoine Heberlé, and world-class direction by Brizé, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll find a better argument for taking a chance on amour this year, no matter how dispiriting the odds. - Brandon Judell

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Mr. Judell is featured in the forthcoming documentary Activist: The Times of Vito Russo and has been edited out of Rosa von Praunheim's New York Memories. In the fall, he'll be teaching "American Jewish Theater" and "Theater into Film" at The City College of New York. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi).

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