Directed by Stéphane Brizé
A story about hesitation, repression, and tortuous chastity, Mademoiselle Chambon is often an unbearably tense, 101 minutes of nearly sinless foreplay. It follows a married house builder (Vincent Lindon) who is made suddenly aware of a yawning emotional void when he forges a relationship with his son's willowy, ethereal teacher (Sandrine Kiberlain). The man, Jean, is a provincial housewife's fantasy in efficient Levi's and sensible, neutral button-downs with rolled-up sleeves. He may shop at mall department stores, but the consumer choices he makes there are ever tasteful. He washes his ailing father's feet, and helps his son with grammar lessons. He can fix anything, like Véronique's broken window, and he's sensitive and appreciative of her slackened passion for the violin. When he says that her playing is more moving than that on the Von Vecsey and Elgar CDs she lends him, the gentle lug seems to mean it.
The film is rich with quietly true moments, in part because Lindon and Kiberlain, who have appeared together before on-screen, were once married off of it. Separated at the time of Mademoiselle Chambon's filming, they nonetheless bring that quality we so ineptly call "chemistry," without which there wouldn't be a movie. Jean and Véronique are damaged. He doesn't realize it, but she's aware that her habit of moving from town to town in short-term teaching positions is a symptom of something missing. Her mother phones her to leave politely cruel messages about her grounded, married sister. When the would-be lovers connect, it offers something of the pain of looking too deep into a mirror.
Director Stéphane Brizé and DP Antoine Héberlé give the duo acres of space to play out their excruciating mating dance, and display the ravages of stifled love in scenes with Jean and Véronique alone (in which they stare at their tea, scratch the table, and throw down spackling spatules in disgust). Brizé has unashamedly cited The Bridges of Madison County as a chief influence, and his film has the same geriatric, butterscotch-candy atmosphere and morality. The characters' sustained refusal to give in to libidinal urges, and the film's refusal to pass negative judgment on it, are old-fashioned, ignoring any "advances" in sexual liberation since David Lean’s Brief Encounter, the Cold Shower masterpiece, came out in 1945. These are not drawbacks necessarily, but the film routinely substitutes moping, melancholia and assumed tragedy for the complexity provided by the powder-keg acting in Lean's film, or the messier questions raised in Eric Rohmer's work. Brizé and his actors never attempt to turn their small tale operatic, but their restraint becomes oppressive.
Opens May 28