Who knew the French could compete with the British for the stiffness of their upper lips? A modern-day variation of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” (although not an official adaptation), “Mademoiselle Chambon” is a beautifully acted miniature about a couple of middle-aged people who find themselves smitten with each other, but they’re too darn decent to act on their feelings. I’m not trying to trivialize the movie. That’s just what it’s about — more an exercise in tone, freighted silences and restrained emotions than the sort of film where things, you know, happen.
Vincent Lindon plays Jean, a construction worker in a mid-sized French city. Aure Atika is his wife, Anne-Marie, who works on the line at a local printing press. They’re blue-collar but comfortable, and interested in their son Jeremy’s education, even if they’re not equipped to help him much with his homework. When Anne-Marie has to take a week’s bed rest after a work-related injury, Jean starts picking up Jeremy at school. And there he meets the boy’s teacher, Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain).
With a small, worried mouth and melancholy eyes, Véronique lives alone in a tidy flat with her violin, which she once played at a near-professional level. The instrument catches Jean’s eye when he comes over to repair the teacher’s decrepit parlor window. And when she plays for him — with appealing, self-conscious reluctance — their mutual attraction edges toward an unspoken passion.
All of this is conveyed with minimal dialogue. Instead, everything we need to know is seen in Jean’s near-comical awkwardness when he’s in the same room with Véronique. Likewise, we see attraction in the way she manages never to quite look him directly in the eye when they speak. But of course Jean is married, and Véronique is his son’s teacher. Things could get messy.
Lindon and Kiberlain make a fascinating pair. He’s older and weathered — meat and potatoes. She’s willowy, refined, elegant — champagne. Véronique suggests a deeper emotional sophistication than Jean, who seems to be dealing — and not very effectively — with his very first experience with contradictory emotions. The actors are terrific together, filling silences with almost palpable longing. Kiberlain in particular has that rare translucence that makes it seem we can read her character’s every thought. (It’s no wonder the actors have such rapport onscreen; in real life Lindon and Kiberlain married in 1998, though they’re now reportedly separated.)
“Mademoiselle Chambon” is a delicate and absorbing duet, though its quiet, casual pace might drive some viewers crazy with impatience. The movie’s greatest strengths, its minimalism and restraint, also contribute to a slight sense of letdown at the end. The conclusion is maybe a little too tidy, too conservative — maybe a little too, um, un-French.
“Mademoiselle Chambon.” With Vincent Lindon, Sandrine Kiberlain. Directed by Stéphane Brizé. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 101 minutes. At Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.