The import of French films into the UK still remains a mystery to me. Mademoiselle Chambon was a sizeable hit in France in 2009 (over 500,000 admissions) but it took two years before the small specialised cinema distributor Axiom released it in the UK in September 2011. The initial release was on just 6 screens and, despite some very good reviews, subsequent bookings seem to have been limited. A little research reveals that director Stéphane Brizé’s previous film, Not Here to be Loved (2005) also took two years to reach the UK via Artificial Eye, who released just 3 prints in June 2007. I missed that release altogether but I’m tempted now to seek out the DVD.
My first reaction to Mademoiselle Chambon was that it was what British arthouse audiences think of as a ‘typical French film’ – beautifully mounted with excellent cinematography and wonderful performances by two familiar stars, Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain. Of course, there are many kinds of French Cinema but this film appeals directly to a specific demographic of older British audiences. There is nothing specifically ‘arty’ about the film, but it falls out of the mainstream because it offers a romance which is subtle and gentle but still powerful. The film is based on a novel by Eric Holder, but director Brizé changed the story significantly.
Jean is a self-employed builder in a small town in the South of France. He is happily married to the beautiful Anne Marie (well played by the striking Aure Atika, best-known to UK audiences for The Beat That My Heart Skipped). The couple have a small son and when Anne Marie injures her back at work in a local print factory, Jean has to pick up his son from school. Here he meets his son’s teacher Véronique. A few days later she asks him to talk to the class about his job as a builder. Hesitant, he accepts and is well received by the children but then Véronique asks him to look at a damaged window in her apartment and he is persuaded to replace it for her. This encounter will eventually lead to a recognition that there is an attraction between them. What follows is certainly a romance but one in which very little happens by the standards of entertainment cinema. Instead we get beautifully composed CinemaScope framings that enable us to feel the emotional pull. There is a minimalist score and this is directly linked, as non-diegetic music, with the diegetic music which Veronique plays on her violin – playing which then becomes an important focus for Jean’s feelings about her. It’s the way that music is used that distinguishes this film from the expressive qualities of a melodrama. This is one of those seemingly ‘anti-melodramas’ in which music, colour, cinematography and mise en scène signify meanings in a subdued rather than expressionistic way.
A very useful review in Cineaste by Megan Ratner offers a detailed reading of the film which I urge you to read and I’ll attempt to expand it. The slow pace of the film and the minimal amount of plotting allows the audience to really think deeply about the two central characters and how they are feeling. As Ratner suggests both characters are seeking something that they need and the classic ‘opposites attract’ observation seems fitting in that Véronique is rootless, moving to a new school in a new town each year, whereas Jean is perhaps too rooted in family and community. But the potential couple also share something – their skill and knowledge represented by intelligence and craft knowledge and expressed through music and building. It’s important that we see Anne Marie at work where she is engaged in routine tasks (though of course she is also a mother and housekeeper). Jean’s father is a key character in this respect. We see Jean tenderly washing his father’s feet and taking him to a funeral home to plan his eventual departure and he becomes an important conduit for the feelings between Jean and Véronique when Jean persuades her to play her violin at his father’s 80th birthday party.
However, I think that there are other ways to think about the narrative. I was struck by a scene towards the end of the film when Véronique speaks to her mother on the phone. We get the sense that in her family she is a ‘failure’ of some kind, certainly in comparison with her sister. Véronique is middle-class by background and though she never makes anything of this, it is her cultural status that partly attracts Jean – her apartment with its sparse but attractive decoration, her knowledge of music and her skill with the violin. Does she seduce Jean consciously or unconsciously via her invitations to the school and then to her apartment? I won’t spoil the pleasure of seeing how the romance runs its course, but I do agree with Megan Ratner that when it comes, the first subtle sign of intimacy between the couple is highly erotic and comparable to the moment in The Age of Innocence when Daniel Day-Lewis eases the buttons of Michelle Pfeiffer’s kid glove. Do we want the physical love between the two to go much further? You’ll have to see the film to make up your own mind. (I wasn’t aware when I watched the film that Kiberlain and Lindon had previously been in a relationship – but perhaps this helped them produce such moving scenes.)
So, if you get the chance to watch this film, I recommend it highly – but do get yourself in the mood for something slow and gentle. Lindon and Kiberlain are wonderful actors who look more like the rest of us than glamorous stars, but under direction of this high standard their performances are mesmerising.
Press Pack downloadable from this US distributor.