Mademoiselle Chambon

(Stéphane Brizé, director)

by Megan Ratner

 

Cineaste

Fall 2010

 

Small-town mason Jean (Vincent Lindon) and factory worker Anne Marie (Aure Atika) live a quiet life with their elementary-school-aged son, Jérémy (Arthur Le Houérou). Affectionately tending his elderly father (Jean-Marc Thibault), enjoying his work, happy in his marriage, Jean seems resigned yet content. But a chance encounter with Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), Jeremy’s musical, itinerant teacher, points up the fragile underpinnings of Jean’s apparently solid life and takes him to the brink of change. Adapted by Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vignon from a novel by Eric Holder, Mademoiselle Chambon’s annulled romance reveals subtle and interesting questions about the place of work, beauty, and love in modern life.

Jean and Véronique have backed into their lives, their respective rootedness and transience different ways of coping with yearning; in his case, for experiences beyond the small comforts of dutiful family life; in hers, for connection and love. Véronique moves from school to school, never remaining for more than a year or so in any one location. Like many other aspects of her life, she describes this in terms of the pain it spares her, the license she has to leave when she doesn’t like a place. Véronique and Jean are brought together when he gives a talk to Jérémy’s class on the builder’s trade. She asks him to look at a drafty window in her place, and he agrees to return to replace it. They don’t flirt, but it’s clear that each feels a certain fascination for the other. Throughout the film, Brizé and editor Anne Klotz use jump cuts to convey the sense in both characters of something missing in their lives, of some way in which they are both alienated from themselves.

Véronique makes elaborate preparations for Jean’s arrival, using the repair as an excuse to entertain. After clearing a space and putting her violin safely away, she retreats to her bedroom. She checks on him once, their exchange a bit awkward; there is no music or other dialog, the only score is the sound of his scraping and drilling. Brizé takes his time with this sequence, alternating between Jean’s adept carpentry and Véronique’s focused grading and reading; eventually, she dozes off. While he waits for her to wake, Jean sees a snapshot of her soloing at a concert. There’s a striking intimacy to this scene: Brizé uses Jean’s examination of Véronique’s meager, graduate-student-style belongings to establish the beginnings of their affair. Though Jean certainly admires her physically—and perhaps sublimates this desire into the request that she play the violin for him—he is captivated by the idea that she lives a somewhat unconventional life, or at least idiosyncratic compared to his predictable path.

Delighted with the new window, she closes it so they can listen to the silence. She reacts to his work with respect and admiration; happy as she is to pay him and to have the window replaced, it’s his craftsmanship that she prizes. His subsequent request that she play for him seems less bold than another response might be to the recognition he feels from her. Reluctantly, she agrees, her gestures those of a reserved girl rather than a woman. Turning her back to play Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour” for Jean, she seems less protected than vulnerable. Kiberlain’s wooden grace transforms Véronique into an embodiment of the instrument itself.

When she runs into Jean as she’s out choosing paint, he tentatively asks about other violin music. She offers to lend him a CD. Back at her place, they sit on her tiny couch listening to Franz von Vecsey’s “Valse Triste,” looking everywhere but at each other, their mutual listening a kind of caress. What would usually be a visual experience becomes instead aural: they are enveloped by the sound. When she reaches her hand for his, they create an eroticism all but nonexistent in contemporary films, especially in modern-day stories. Their embrace triggers a real frisson, comparable to Daniel Day-Lewis easing the buttons of Michelle Pfeiffer’s kid glove in The Age of Innocence (1993).

Jean goes from her place to his refuge, a windy lookout point. It isn’t until late in the film, when Jean brings Véronique there, that the wide panorama is shown. His craving for a wider view—for a world far beyond the niceties and obligations of his stolid life and for the esthetic pleasure of its beauty—makes his interest in Véronique’s cultured world less a novelty than a need. Though superficially he and his wife Anne Marie are a match, she’s far too easily satisfied with TV, board games, and organizing his father’s birthday party to provide them with much more than practicalities to talk about.

Among the most affecting scenes are Jean’s visits with his father. Washing his parent’s feet, he is both father and son, gently respectful. They go to a funeral home together—the surreal effect of discussing burial plot, funeral, and a casket made only more so by Brizé’s sober treatment. This bit of responsible-citizen planning feels otherworldly, and Thibault underplays the father’s befuddlement very well. In a film filled with controlling absent-presences (Jean’s faraway sisters, who determine the date of the birthday party; the unborn child Jean and Anne Marie learn they are expecting), this is a reminder not only of the imminent absence of Jean’s father, but of his own, as well.

Véronique’s new window is also a form of absent presence, a trace of Jean in her sanctuary. While she’s out one day, he slips a note under her door, and, emboldened by its careful affection (“I’m thinking of you”), she pops in on him at his worksite, eager to tell him that a vacancy means a possible long-term position at the school. Nonplussed, he announces that Anne Marie is expecting. In an echo of the first scenes of demolition, Kiberlain’s face seems to collapse and even her balletic composure seems slightly warped. She manages to convey both loneliness and stoicism, her general expression one of enormously cautious expectation.

To a great extent, Véronique and Jean each are hampered by passivity. Aside from the stunning performances, Brizé constantly puts the idea of indirection, of missed connections, into play. When Jean tries to make amends with Véronique, he parks outside her building and waits for her. Seeing her return in his side mirror, he telephones. She lets the machine pick up, looking at his car through “his” window, letting him record all he has to say. With little speech, none of it especially revealing (he’s sorry if he’s hurt her), Brizé makes a subtle comment on the ways technology can be used to humiliate and hurt. Later, Véronique waits through another call, this time from her mother whose dispiriting sentences, expressing tepid curiosity about Véronique’s life, while praising her sister’s success, reveal all you need to know. Defined by what she lacks—a partner, a child, a home—Véronique’s only power is refusal.

Shortly before Véronique is scheduled to leave for the new teaching post she has decided to take, Jean appears at her apartment with a request that she play for his father “to hear something beautiful” at his birthday party. Véronique hesitantly accepts. In a strange way, it’s as if Jean wants to incorporate her into the family, as if by having her there, he can somehow neutralize his feelings and, most important, avoid having to make a choice. She’s diffident at the party, but gets her own back by playing “Salut d’Amour,” Jean unable to hide its effect and Anne Marie quick to surmise the meaning of her husband’s disquiet. Though there’s no confrontation, the scene crucially establishes that Véronique has left her mark on Jean and consequently has altered his marriage.

Jean is defined by what he has—a family, an aging father, site-specific work. Much as he may fantasize on his windy hilltop, he is fixed in his life and those roots exert an almost visible gravitational pull when he tries to make good on his promise to leave with Véronique. Kiberlain’s birdlike movements express Véronique’s composed distress, the three warning departure whistles of the train like a form of official keening. On each end, cinematic restraint allows the scene to reverberate through the final moments in which Jean, returned to Anne Marie and seated at their kitchen table, looks out the closed window like a prisoner.

Each of the actors gives an utterly credible, often extremely subtle performance. Lindon wields the sledge and jackhammer as if born to the trade, his movements a combination of force and precision. Kiberlain’s believable violin playing (synched to Ayako Tanaka’s actual performance) and Lindon’s construction-site scenes show enormous respect for the skills they emulate. (The performances are all the more startling as Lindon and Kiberlain were married for many years, though no longer together at the time Mademoiselle Chambon was shot.) In many ways, Atika’s is the most difficult part, her actions more rote and reactive, yet even her quite pronounced and exotic looks seem tamed by the way she inhabits Anne Marie’s rather limited world.

What seems on the surface a class conflict is really a difference of capacity. Jean and Anne Marie are both blue collar, but their forms of work are entirely different: Jean can point to his portion of the finished project; Anne Marie cannot. He and Véronique seem to share occupations that affect the world directly, each of which demand intellectual (rather than academic) and experiential skills. (The theme of direct versus indirect experience is introduced early in the film, when Anne Marie and Jean attempt to help Jérémy with his grammar homework, a discussion of correct use of the direct object.) When Jean’s circular saw breaks, he knows what’s wrong; Anne Marie certainly could not fix the factory machine on which she works. Both Jean and Véronique need intuitive abilities to do their work, skills granted only by time and experience.

The tension between literal, explicit knowledge and its ineffable, tacit counterpart makes Mademoiselle Chambon far more than a well-executed narrative of the romantic what-might-have-been. As Hannah Arendt noted, “The reality and reliability of the human world rests primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.” These things include structures (at his class presentation one of the children asks if Jean builds houses “for life” and he agrees) and art (at the party, Véronique introduces Elgar’s piece by noting that the composer has been long dead). To produce an object of value, to learn to play an instrument, or to teach children beyond the textbook, requires tacit knowledge—the kind of knowledge that comes only through direct contact. There’s an inexplicable, unquantifiable element to a direct experience that makes it preferable to even the most perfect technological version. Jean understands this better than Véronique: on the eve of her departure, he returns her discs, telling her he still prefers to hear her play.