As if Vincent Lindon weren’t sexy enough, Mademoiselle Chambon features many, many scenes of him doing construction work. Be still my heart.
It’s no wonder his son’s teacher, Véronique (Sandrine Kiberlain, and Lindon’s wife, the lucky duck), falls for him, here named Jean, and hard. Affairs are not played for suspense in European movies the way they are in American ones. This side of the Atlantic, it’s about whether the virtuous Puritan side of us will allow the more decadent Jeffersonian aspects to have a little fun. (The Puritans ALWAYS win.) Situation trumps character every time.
Not so here, for which I shout a loud “merci” to whomever’s listening. Quiet and careful, director Stéphane Brizé’s movie lingers with the characters, letting the modest romance develop on its own terms. Jean isn’t looking for another woman, nor has he any reason to do so; the movie’s first minutes show him puzzling over homework with his wife (Aurore Atika), one of those effortlessly sensual French women, as they try to help their very cute son figure out French grammar. It’s a brilliant scene, at once showing how ridiculous so much of education is – really, who gives a rat’s ass how a transitive verb functions? – as well as the wife’s small but real insecurity about her own academic shortcomings, and Jean’s yearning for something better for his son than construction.
So it’s not a huge surprise that he falls for Véronique, either. And how marvelous that he first sees her from the back, where he becomes mesmerized by her perfect posture. In fact, Brizé often shoots Kiberlain from the back, to remind us of that image that first captured Jean. Throughout the movie, Kiberlain is still, and Brizé never, ever rushes her or anyone else. Nearly everything takes places in the different actors’ eyes; more than once, a blink communicates that suddenly, all is understood. One of the most remarkable bits of acting I’ve seen in a movie comes late, when Atika looks over to Jean, hoping to catch his eyes. When she doesn’t, and then watches him as he watches Véronique, we see devastation and the steely decision to not show it all at once. Hard to imagine many Americans who could pull that off, and impossible to imagine an American director who’d allow the camera enough time to register it.
But this is no precious and delicate objet d’art; there’s plenty of fire and nerve. Jean is downright pissed about his dilemma, and, in true husbandly fashion, takes it out on the people he loves. He’s also maddeningly passive at times. He is, basically, real. Meanwhile, Véronique’s loneliness and hunger are palpable, even flinch-inducing. We watch her take enormous risks for a character so painfully introverted, then will herself with iron self-control back to a shred or two of dignity.
Atika’s role was originally more prominent, which you can see in the outtakes, well worth a look. In one tremendously funny scene, she and Lindon are watching a movie in bed when she accuses him of farting. What follows is one of the most genuine snapshots of married life ever captured on film, and it’s truly funny. You can see why the scenes were cut; the movie needs to be tightly focused or it will simply turn into a domestic melodrama. Nonetheless, you’ll appreciate the finished product, as well as just how good Atika is, if you see what the director decided to chop.
Things end the way they should. It is perhaps spoiling to say that Jean never really figures out what the hell he wants, which makes him all the more true. Mademoiselle Chambon proves that great craftsmanship does not need to come at the expense of contrivance.