If nothing else, the low-key drama Mademoiselle Chambon demonstrates that the French, too, have would-be lovers who suffer quietly through emotional and sexual repression. This film, by Stéphane Brizé, is a miniaturist portrait of a provincial carpenter—and husband and father—and his relationship with his son's schoolteacher.
The best scene in the film occurs right after the opening credits. We meet Jean (Vincent Lindon) with his wife and son. In a gently comic scene, the parents struggle to help their son with his homework. A couple of key points are established: The parents aren't particularly well educated, but they're a happy, settled couple and conscientious about raising their son.
But when his son's schoolteacher, Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), invites Jean to speak to the children, this domestic equilibrium is tested. The teacher finds herself unexpectedly moved by Jean's simple, nervous eloquence as he describes how he builds houses. It turns out that Véronique is a professional substitute who frequently relocates for yearlong temp gigs. But she also seems to be in flight from her bourgeois Paris family. We learn that she is a failed classical violinist and that she seems to be a disappointment to her family. After Jean's masterful presentation, she contrives excuses to see him again, and off the movie goes.
Mademoiselle Chambon is an effective portrait of lives of quiet desperation. Jean is an almost idealized depiction of a humble, taciturn tradesman, but he chafes at his life's ordinariness and anonymity. A running subplot concerning a birthday party for his father—also a carpenter—includes a sublime scene in which the two men go shopping for the older man's future casket.
It's a broad generalization, to be sure, but most movie romances take us somewhere we're not likely to go ourselves—be it I Am Love, Eat Pray Love or Twilight. The virtue, and limitation, of Mademoiselle Chambon is the ordinariness of the characters and their quotidian affair. It's one we can relate to, but it's not necessarily one that we go to the movies to watch. There's no narcissism or raw lust in their relationship—only the desire to alleviate their loneliness and feelings of failure and mortality. Still, within these narrow confines, Kiberlain and Lindon (a married couple at the time of filming) play fine scenes together in which they're nearly paralyzed by fear and repression. Their breakthrough, when it comes, doesn't develop quite the way we expect it to.
The restraint shown in this film is in marked contrast to what is probably the greatest film about well-behaved, repressed people contemplating an affair: Brief Encounter, from 1945. It's not nearly as famous as it should be: Made by David Lean before he began making the epics that would establish his permanent reputation, this film achieves a swooning madness despite (or because of) the failure of its lovers to consummate their affair. One thing that made that film so powerful was the presence of a voiceover of its female lead, which was a shamed confession of how she, an ordinary housewife almost disgraced her middle-class upbringing by having an affair with a blandly anonymous office commuter. Unfortunately, there isn't the same strong point of view in Mademoiselle Chambon, and that's partly because this story is set in present-day France, where their affair presents no threat to public order. Still, both characters suffer in silence, acting out in small ways: Jean gets irritable at home and at work, while Véronique finds emotional expression with her violin. But once they've exposed their feelings to each other, it seems that there's little place for this film to go.
Well, there is a scene on a train platform that promises an exit for these characters. Brief Encounter, too, drew enormous symbolic and cinematic power from the comings and goings of a commuter train. (Trains are for lovers: For example, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy met on a train in Before Sunrise, and Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint achieved connubial bliss on one, when Hitchcock showed the penetration of a tunnel at the notorious fadeout of North by Northwest.) Unfortunately, the train station scene at the climax of Mademoiselle Chambon is a fizzle, becoming an exercise in will-they-or-won't-they cliché, reprising an all-too-familiar movie scene that underlines the fact that this film, while offering two sensitive lead performances, has little new to say.