Thursday, May 27, 2010

Parent-Teacher Associating: Mademoiselle Chambon

In general, the French excel at infidelity. There are exceptions though. When a rough-hewn married construction worker falls for his son’s teacher, it lead to pain and confusion for them both in Stéphane Brizé’s Mademoiselle Chambon (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jean is not a smooth talker. A contractor, he works with his hands rather than words. As a result, he is surprised when his son’s teacher, Mademoiselle Chambon, asks him to address the class on their monthly career day. Though they do not have much to say to each other, there are definitely the subtle stirrings of attraction between them. Those vague temptations become much more pronounced when Mlle. hires Jean to replace her drafty windows. It is consummated with achingly poignancy when he convinces the teacher to play her violin for him at the end of the job. Though chaste, their encounter is so intimate it is tantamount to betrayal.

Frankly, Chambon should have ended at this point. Though the cast is uniformly excellent throughout the film, Brizé’s handling of their “courtship” is so powerful the more conventional infidelity drama that follows seems like a let-down. Had that made it a short subject rather than a feature, then so be it.

Still, the cast brings their characters to life with exquisite sensitivity. The casting of real life exes Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain as the potential illicit lovers surely raised eyebrows in France. However, they have the perfectly physicality for their roles (him hulking but hesitant and her fragile yet mature) as well as an undeniable chemistry together.

Exhibiting remarkable patience, Brizé lets each scene unfold with unhurried grace. The stark romanticism is brilliantly enhanced by the music, both licensed classical recordings and the violin of Ayako Tanaka (whose work significantly contributes to the film’s melancholy ambiance). Yet, Brizé is also just as effective in his use of silence. Indeed, it is a finely tuned production that looks and sounds quite striking.

Impressionistic and fatalistic, Chambon is perhaps a victim of its early success conveying the quiet yearning and uncertainty of its leads. Though it loses some of its potency once it settles into a familiar story arc, it remains an elegant examination of emotional betrayal. A film for mature adults (in the best sense of the word), Chambon opens tomorrow (5/28) at the Cinema Village.