A tender waltz of self-restrained romance, ex-couple Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain quietly explode in Stéphane Brizé’s autumn-hued Mademoiselle Chambon.
If Music Be The Food of Love by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Unlike other love stories of dangerously close liaisons, Mademoiselle Chambon is strangely realist and unsentimental. Its scenes build only slowly to a narrative climax, its dialogue circling unspoken truths with hesitant pauses and naturalistic silences as its awkward lovers pursue passion like moths around a lightbulb. Its climactic train station sequence, clearly reminiscent of Brief Encounter, in which primary school teacher Véronique Chambon leaves town, abandoned by her lover on the station platform, is almost coldly matter of fact. There are no metaphoric hooting tunnels of love here, but rather a subdued mutual attraction which recalls the suppressed emotion of In The Mood For Love and The Bridges Of Madison County. It’s partly Stéphane Brizé’s style, his debut feature Not Here To Be Loved is surely just as melancholy. And maybe it’s due in part to Eric Holder’s source novel, all delicately tangled emotion. But with sublime performances from ex-couple Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain as the not-so-young lovers falling into an affair, there are ripples beneath Mademoiselle Chambon‘s still surface that roil and rage.
It’s a simple story. Jean, a builder, goes to pick up his son Jérémy from school when his wife Anne-Marie is signed off from work with a bad back. And before you know it, he’s mending the schoolteacher’s broken window and she’s playing the violin for him in her living room. Over macaroons. He’s overwhelmed, caring for his sick father, looking after his laid-out wife and providing for his young son. She’s new to the city and lonely, and seizes upon the opportunity for Jean to come to her class and speak about his work. The attraction is immediate and magnetic, lingering in each other’s presence. She bashfully resists playing the violin, gradually cajoled into performing. But above all, it’s the music that brings them together – a shared moment of intimacy. She may have her back to him, but Véronique at last has someone to play for while Jean uncovers a part of himself long forgotten and neglected. Musical soul food.
It’s Franz von Vecsey’s La Valse Triste, and its sadness, like Mademoiselle Chambon’s own, haunts Jean as he drives away, the violin still ringing in his ears, her presence lingering. And like the house he’s building, it’s knocking down walls. Walls that have kept him happily devoted to his wife and whose absence now threatens to leave him exposed. Like the adulterous Kreutzer Sonata made infamous by Tolstoy, it’s a piece for violin and piano – the harmony only lifts when played by two. Like love. And as they bump into each other with suspicious regularity, their heads may keep them on the straight and narrow, but their hearts yearn for more. It’s this internal fight, their reluctance to give in to love that makes Mademoiselle Chambon so powerfully poignant. There’s an unbearable tension as she listens to Jean leaving a message on her answering machine not knowing he’s just outside. And Sandrine Kiberlain gives a heartrending performance, more tender than many other roles, like her harridan housewife in Philippe Le Guay’s The Women On The 6th Floor or her bitter actress in Marc Fitoussi’s La Vie d’Artiste. And as she listens to her mother singing her sister’s praises (promotion, husband and kids), her pitiful sadness is palpable. Her loneliness haunting.
Making an awkward appearance at his building site, coyly declaring her love and her readiness to stay in the town for him, Véronique is gently resisted by Jean as he informs her of his wife’s pregnancy. Hope fades and the moment of passion dissipates into a cry and a hug. Happiness seems impossible, and Jean’s strained relationship with wife Anne-Marie reaches boiling point in a perfectly realistic car-park confrontation of confused resentments and helpless silences. The emotional honesty of the dialogue makes the film feel unusually relevant and real, its outcome painfully uncertain. But as Jean drives Véronique home after the party, she lingers on the doorstep – the spark that finally ignites the fire. Their passion is consummated and plans are made to leave town together. But as we follow their runaway tryst from behind, like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, the tension becomes almost unbearable – Véronique waiting nervously on the platform, Jean in the underpass immobile. No goodbyes, just emptiness, the guard’s whistle punctuating the rupture. Véronique slips onboard and the train departs with matter-of-fact objectivity. No histrionics or drama. Jean returns to his wife, bag in hand and head low. Normal life resumes and yet it’s not quite the same either.
While we may try to pin the blame on one or the other for instigating the affair (it’s astonishing how moralistic we audiences can be), Brizé is more forgiving, apportioning no guilt. It is after all a waltz. And like the film’s final song, Françoise Lo’s Quel Joli Temps Pour Se Dire Au Revoir, Mademoiselle Chambon is a protracted pas-de-deux of hellos and goodbyes, twisting pleasure out of the endless conflict between love and its renunciation. There are gloriously cinematic, understated moments, like Jean’s windswept, tree-blown refuge where he sits contemplating or the destruction of the house that permeates the film. And there are beautiful performances too – both Vincent Lindon and Aure Atika are powerfully understated. It might not swell like a Wagnerian opera, Mademoiselle Chambon might remain a sad waltz in a minor key, but with Sandrine Kiberlain in the lead, it’s undeniably haunting.
Mademoiselle Chambon is released in the UK on 23rd September 2011