Directed by Stéphane Brizé
Written by Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vignon (based on the novel by Eric Holder)
Starring: Vincent Lindon, Sandrine Kiberlain, Aure Atika, Jean-Marc Thibault, Arthur Le Houérou
Run Time: 101 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated
There is something so sadly affecting yet so cathartic about Mademoiselle Chambon. It is a movie whose aim is crystal clear, and whose effect is unambiguously sought. For being so slight and straightforward a film, and so constantly teetering on the precipice of cliché, Mademoiselle Chambon survives the ordinariness of its means to end up a nearly perfect movie.
Based on the novel by Eric Holder, the movie is a classic story of forbidden love, the kind where two people fall in love at the wrong time in their lives, and the doomed nature of their attraction hovers over them like a bittersweet refrain that makes every moment they have together a barely contained cauldron of covert emotions. A bricklayer named Jean (Vincent Lindon) appears to be a contented married man, until a chance encounter with his son’s fourth grade school teacher, Mademoiselle Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), turns his heart inside out, and leaves him aching with a desire that feels almost spiritual, but is nevertheless also extremely physical. For her part, Mademoiselle Chambon reciprocates with her own pent-up need for love. Both are so hesitant in acknowledging their feelings that it makes their mutual passion feel all the more pure and lovely, except for the enormous obstacle of Jean’s wife Anne-Marie (Aure Atika), a compassionate and strong woman in her own right who deserves every ounce of guilt her husband feels at his sudden longing.
The storyline itself is a cliché, but the director, Stéphane Brizé, manages to take this hackneyed narrative and fashion it into something not only immediate and original, but also profoundly moving. Brizé adapted Holder’s novel and directed the film with a delicate restraint that gives the movie the weight of a biblical parable. He also chose actors who inhabit their roles with an air of common dignity; they remind us of people we would know in real life.
Vincent Lindon, a tousled-looking French actor known for his sensitive everyman roles, plays the husband with such doleful ardor that it is easy to understand why someone like Mademoiselle Chambon would find him attractive. As the delicate and phlegmatic schoolmarm, Sabine Kiberlain has an attractive face, but here she lets herself look drab, almost expressionless, and her performance is equally fascinating in its containment. The reserved performances of these two actors is so palpable that when they do kiss-in a devastatingly beautiful shot that lasts far longer than the average screen kiss-it is such a heartfelt embrace so full of restrained longing that the audience feels a sense of embarrassment at watching. (An interesting side note: Vincent Lindon and Sabine Kiberlain were once married in real life, and they have a 10-year-old daughter together. One can’t help but wonder if that history affected their performance. There is definitely a feeling of ease mixed with unease between the two actors that adds to the film’s strange balance of desire and restraint, conviction and despair.)
What makes Mademoiselle Chambon more complicated than most forbidden love stories is the amicable presence of the betrayed wife. Played against type by the beautiful Aure Atika, Jean’s wife is spunky, loving, and deserving of so much more than a husband who has suddenly lost his heart to another. No matter how much we may long for a consummation of the two lovers’ middle-aged yearnings, we are as conflicted as Jean is, which makes his predicament all the more wrenching.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to The Bridges of Madison County, the 1995 film starring Meryl Streep as an Iowa housewife who falls in love with a traveling photographer one weekend while her husband and children have gone to a state fair. There is one scene in particular in Mademoiselle Chambon that recalls the scene at the end of Bridges when Miss Streep, riding with her husband in their pick-up truck, suddenly grasps the door handle of the truck when he stops at a stoplight. Will she leap out of the truck before the light turns green and leave him for her lover? Or will she stay with her husband and children because it is the right thing to do? Jean finds himself at a similar crossroads, but it’s at a train station where he seals his own fate.
However much they share the same story and the same theme of missed opportunity, these two films cannot be more different. We know from the beginning what the ending will be in Bridges, and we begrudgingly follow the film to its inevitable conclusion. In Mademoiselle Chambon, we share Jean’s experience as our own, his longing becomes our own, and the pain he feels at having to decide between two lives is our pain. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We have all at least once in our lives wanted something more, and it is that realization that changes everything.