Mademoiselle Chambon

Sometimes you are surprised and sometimes you are lucky enough to actually pull a rabbit out of a hat – or find a fine movie by accident. Today I watched a film that before seeing it, I had no knowledge of it, knew neither the lead actor nor actress, had never heard of the director, and basically, decided to view it because of the film’s poster.

Such was my decision to have a look at French director Stephane Brize’s Mademoiselle Chambon. Okay I knew straightaway that this was a French film. The title, Mademoiselle Chambon, was my clue. But that’s all I knew besides the fact that a solo woman on a train station platform is always intriguing. Having said that much,  now let’s set the film up for you.

Jean is a mason. He builds houses. He can install windows, break up concrete with a pneumatic drill, lay bricks, or even take down a wall with a sledge hammer. He is a mason and the son of a mason. He’s proud of his work. He has a wife and a 7 year old son. When we first meet them they’re off for a picnic, and helping the son with his grammar studies. But they hit an impasse when the grammar lesson provides a sample sentence…

The maintenance department prepares a report.

…and then asks, what is the direct object in that sentence. Jean and his wife are stumped. They have no clue. But they work through it with such questions as ‘Who’ and ‘what’ as the grammar lesson instructs. They are simple people living in provincial France. A loving family. We should all be so lucky.

On an afternoon when Jean is picking up his son at the school, he runs into the school teacher, the titular Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon. She asks if he would care to help her out by speaking to the class about his work. Another father had to cancel. She tells him it is a few days off, and he can prepare and she’ll prepare the class.

The kids are sharp and well prepared. They ask questions and Jean talks about his work. What do you start with to build a house? How long does it take? Will it last a lifetime? Jean loves to talk about his work, and despite being something of a shy man, he loves this attention.

Ms Chambon is attracted. Yes, that quickly. But she’s a mysterious woman herself. She’s single, and she moves from one teaching post to another, never staying more than a year at any one post.  Later Jean will ask her,

Why do you only stay just the one year?

So I can leave if I don’t like it.

What if you do like it?

Veronique doesn’t answer. But from what we’ve seen so far, both Jean played by Vincent Lindon, and Veronique played by Sandrine Kiberlain, convey so much through their expressions, by the slump or set of their shoulders, or even the way their heads tilt. They’re simply marvelous in how much they can convey while remaining wordless.

There is much about these two that we don’t know as we meet them. But we will learn much about  them as we get deeper into the story. The film doesn’t really begin until music makes its appearance. Mademoiselle Chambon has mentioned to Jean that she has a window that is draughty. He says he’ll come over and have a look at it. He’s fascinated by her apartment which is filled with books, art, and dozens and dozens of music cds. He spies a violin in its case.

Shyly he asks if she will play it for him. She demurs at first. But when he says, “You can play facing away from me,” it really has two meanings. She won’t have to face him, and his reactions to the music will be hidden from her.

The music is almost like an ephiphany for him. Jean is astounded by the impact that a violin solo has on him. As we say here in the states – he’s blown away. It is as if this music has unlocked a part of him that he didn’t know he had. For Veronique the act of playing music once again for someone has re-opened her soul that for reasons unknown to us has been sealed off, tightly shut. She too is awakened internally.

Soon after, Jean meets her in a paint store. She has come to the store to buy paint for the new windows. She asks if he liked her music. He says very much so, She offers to lend him some CDs with the same music. In her apartment, as the music plays from the cd, both are touched by the music. They embrace. Her hand is on his face. There is a connection beneath the awkward and light physical action. We feel it even as it doesn’t really amount to anything for that is all that happens.

There’s your set up. For Jean and Veronique an adventure or maybe it is a grand passion might begin. Both are so inwardly turned that neither can express what they feel, what they want, or what they should do about it. Watching Vincent and Sandrine perform is not like watching an actor or actress. These characters are incomplete as people, and there’s the possibility that each sees or feels in the other that the answers to each of their own personal  questions might be in what is before their eyes. And all of this is conveyed without words.

I know this sounds like it might be dull, or might be more work than you want to do in watching a film. But your work is rewarded by this splendid film. It is quite simply tres bien.  Afterwards I came to learn that Vincent and Sandrine were once married, and that they have a 10 year old daughter. Maybe this is why they work so well together when acting,

Truly, never before has so much been said in a film with so little dialogue. Never have you seen  such poignancy and emotional depth on the faces of the leads that can touch you so strongly. As I said at the outset, I am fortunate to have accidentally chosen this film.

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2 thoughts on “Mademoiselle Chambon

  1. I love French romance movies like Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) , A Man and a Woman, the Man Who Loved Women, and Tout en Vie (And Now my Love). So I was happy to catch Mademoiselle Chambon on Netflix. Once the film began, however, I ran into trouble. It’s a very puzzling movie that reminds me of the Mad Hatter‘s riddle “Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk?”

    First the film title suggests that the movie is probably about Ms. Chambon, the lonely violin-playing schoolteacher, but the action begins and ends focused on Jean, her brief encounter partner, who is, of all things, a stone mason. Definitely an odd couple, even in the imaginary world of cinema. I knew from the start it would take a lot of work for this relationship to succeed.

    Confused about who precisely was going to be the protagonist, I watched the French director’s riddle grow ever more difficult in maddening obtuse stages, beginning with a lengthy discussion of how to determine the direct object of a sentence. Why would the filmmaker spend the first 10 minutes reminding me how puzzling grammar is? A very strange way to hook my attention, n’est pas?

    Eventually, I developed the answer — this film explores the question, who is the direct object of this love affair? Who is the protagonist? Who is pursuing whom? Whoever he/she is, what does he/she want?

    Like the riddle posed by the Mad Hatter, there is no answer to these questions. At least no answer we can readily agree on. If you like quiet, romantically enigmatic movies that illuminate, but leave opaque, the two main characters, I recommend you watch Mademoiselle Chambon. Just don’t try to explain the premise to your significant other.

    • Thanks for the contribution and for the insightful opinion on this film. I’ve now seen this film twice, and I am no more enlightened after this second viewing than I was after the first. In fact I am angered by the inarticulateness of the two leads. She was passive – and seemed always to be waiting for Jean to do something. While Jean could not express himself to Veronique, nor his wife.

      Of course they were a mismatched couple to begin with (in the film). They had little in common aside from the physical attraction. Jean did like the music, but not enough to overcome his indecisiveness. On the other hand, it is quite likely that Veronique had an overwhelming fear of commitment. She moved from teaching job to teaching job. A year in one place was plenty for her. If she disliked the location or the job, she would leave sooner rather than later.

      When Jean did ask her what would she do if she liked the job and the place, she said she’d probably leave anyway. As for the premise of the film – two people who aren’t meant to be together, don’t end up together. And in between we get a lot of stuff that’s non-verbal and non=physical. Since these people had so little to say between them, the screenplay has managed to convey exactly that. Which could be construed as the point of the film – but is far from rewarding to the viewer.

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