Infidelity is such a common theme in French cinema and yet Mademoiselle Chambon, the latest film by French writer/director Stéphane Brizé, still manages to feel fresh. Adapted from a novel by Eric Holder, Mademoiselle Chambon is about Jean, a happy and content man who divides his time between his job as a construction worker and his wife and son. When Jean meets his son’s schoolteacher Véronique, the Mademoiselle Chambon of the film’s title, he is drawn to her as she is to him.
Part of what makes this film feel so much more than yet another film about a married person cheating is its natural approach and complete lack of sensationalism. Nobody in this film is playing the part of the marriage-breaking seducer, there is no scandal involved and there is no dramatic age difference between the couple having the affair. The focus of the film is the building emotional pull between the pair instead of physical desire. Jean is not an unhappy man but when he hears Véronique play the violin it opens something within him that he hadn’t encountered before. In fact, Mademoiselle Chambon is less about an affair but more about two people wrestling with whether or not to act upon the attraction building between them.
The performances in the film are excellent. Brizé has cast two of France’s finest actors with Vincent Lindon (Welcome) as Jean and Sandrine Kiberlain (Little Nicholas) as Véronique. Not only are they experienced and talented actors but they are former lovers in real life. We can only speculate of the challenges the pair had playing such roles in the film but the results are beautiful. Rather than swapping lusty looks of forbidden love, they portray the dynamic between them through a combination of over politeness and nervousness. The result is a pair of performances of wonderfully measured tenderness, hesitance and sadness. The battle between the head and the heart, desire and common sense, is mainly played out in the eyes and body language of Lindon and Kiberlain.
The final element that makes Mademoiselle Chambon feel so sincere is how it captures the sense that life still goes on around the inner turmoil of the two lead characters. They both still have jobs and particularly with Jean’s construction work, Brizé is a confident enough filmmaker to allow the camera to patiently film Jean at work knowing that at times this is enough to hold our interest. The way the cinematography captures the natural light is also subtly but strategically used to beautifully indicate the time of day and the mood of the scene. Mademoiselle Chambon is a small film but a very affective one with a refreshingly mature and restrained approach to the very familiar theme of infidelity.