This French love story shows great restraint
‘Mademoiselle Chambon’’ begins with a floor being torn up. It’s one of the few bits of action in this quiet, restrained, and often moving French film. The scene hints at what’s going on inside the man doing the demolition. Jean, a middle-aged contractor, wields a mean sledgehammer, but he’s no brute. Decent and caring, he has a small son and wife (Aure Atika) whom he seems to be happy with.
Vincent Lindon, as Jean, has a great, tired, lived-in face. With his sleepy eyes, he’s like a Gallic version of the comedian Richard Lewis, only a lot more macho and with all the laughs wrung out. Or he could be a younger Placido Domingo, incapable of singing. He always looks slightly bewildered. He broods without even knowing that’s what he’s doing. Introspection does not come naturally to Jean. Neither does it come naturally to the camera, which makes him all the more attractive to it.
Despite the title, we experience “Mademoiselle Chambon’’ mostly from Jean’s point of view. Sandrine Kiberlain, as the eponymous teacher of Jean’s son, is harder to read. She’s handsome, if not quite pretty, with blond hair and a slightly pinched face. She teaches in a different school district every year. “If I like it, I leave anyway,’’ she tells Jean. “I’ve got used to it.’’ She’s rootless, as he isn’t, which is part of what draws him to her.
They meet when Jean picks his son up from school after his wife injures her back. Another father, who was supposed to talk to the class about his job, has had to cancel. Can Jean come instead? He agrees, with a bit of hesitation. As it turns out, he’s very good with the kids. We watch Kiberlain in slow-zoom close-up as she watches him. What we’re seeing is a woman falling in love.
She hires Jean to fix a drafty window in her apartment. The awkwardness between them is very well done. Noticing a music stand and violin, he shyly asks her to play. At first she declines. When she finally agrees, it’s with the understanding that she play with her back to him. There’s no mistaking the longing both feel as she plays and he watches.
Being in love, even when the feeling is mutual, is not the same as being together. The remainder of the movie relates how that love plays out. Does it even get acknowledged?
There’s a restraint to “Mademoiselle Chambon’’ that’s more English than French. Emotions get repressed more often than expressed. Except that isn’t the cinematic master of understatement and emotional intelligence a Frenchman? One way to think of “Mademoiselle Chambon’’ (a chambon is a piece of a horse’s halter) is as “Brief Encounter’’ as reimagined by Eric Rohmer. There’s even a train-station scene. No screen lovers have ever kept a stiffer upper lip than Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, but Lindon and Kiberlain hold up their end.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.