Yesterday’s movie was a press screening of 12th & Delaware, a quietly horrifying HBO movie about the campaign to end abortion, but I can’t tell you about that now; because the film opens the Human Rights Watch Film Festival next month, you’ll get my take on it in a few weeks. So I thought I’d tell you about another movie I caught at a recent press screening, which will probably be available on DVD in a few months after a very limited release in theaters.
A high-class soap opera about longing and missed chances strictly for and about grownups, Mademoiselle Chambon is kin to Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County, Ulu Grosbard’s Falling In Love, and the granddaddy of them all, David Lean’s Brief Encounter. It starts with a picnicking family of three as the attractive middle-aged parents help their kid do his grammar homework by puzzling out a circular definition in his textbook. It’s a sweet, funny scene, and an economical introduction to the family we’re about to spend time with—and maybe lose.
As it turns out, this is mostly the father’s story. Jean (Vincent Lindon), a macho yet sensitive guy whose blue-jeaned butt the camera keeps ogling, is a Gallic version of the romance-novel ideal Eastwood played in Bridges. He builds houses, takes tender care of his aging father (Jean-Marc Thibault, whose beautiful, craggy face is used to good effect in a couple of scenes), and comes home to a lovely and loving wife (Aure Atika, whose warmth and emotional intelligence gives heft and dignity to an underwritten role). It’s a good life—or so he thinks, until he meets his son’s teacher, Mlle Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain).
Everything about her, from her pale, freckled skin and sinewy hands to the classical violin he loves to hear her play, speaks to a kind of refinement this blue-collar guy presumably hasn’t had much access to, and he longs to peel off her tasteful pastel clothes and immerse himself in it. Writer-director Stéphane Brizé and co-writer Florence Vignon fill this small plot with almost obsessive care, creating a beautifully composed, deeply felt story in which every emotion is given space not just to breathe, but to gulp in lungfuls of air.
The filmmakers sometimes linger too long for my taste, holding a shot for what feels like minutes as one or both of the two moon over their forbidden love. A pervasive melancholy colors almost all the interactions of these two conscientious people, who are too burdened by a guilty awareness of the suffering they would cause if they got together (she is, after all, his kid’s teacher) to lose themselves in the joy of their mutual attraction. Though that makes them more sympathetic, it also gives their love affair a sodden and tone that gets downright oppressive at times.
But the look and feel of this delicate meditation on longing is what lingers most. Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé floods most scenes with plangent, golden-hour light, artfully blurring the backgrounds to keep the focus on the would-be lovers. And the chemistry between the two feels painfully real, perhaps because Lindon and Kiberlain were married but separated when they made the film.
The filmmakers find inventive ways to tell us just enough about the main characters’ backgrounds, including a presentation he gives to her class about his job and a voice mail message from her mother that she receives as we watch. Body language is filmed with unusual subtlety too. Jean and Mlle Chambon’s awkward first kiss is nicely staged, and so is the distance he develops from his wife as he’s falling for the teacher. And when he and Mlle Chambon are together, you feel the intimacy of bodies self-consciously sharing a space, avoiding each other with exquisite care because they so long to touch.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.