Although director Stéphane Brizé won a César for best adapted screenplay, this drama is driven less by dialogue than the longing glances and pained silences of married construction worker Jean (Vincent Lindon) and his young son’s teacher, Véronique (Sandrine Kiberlain). Mademoiselle Chambon may be a small film about inconsequential people, but the situations and emotions it stirs up are universally profound.
Instead of recounting yet another tale of male-midlife crisis disrupting stable yet routine family life, the film zeroes in on the subtle effects of unanticipated pheromonal changes. The pair’s attraction isn’t magnetic, yet it’s undeniable. He encourages her to pick up her dusty violin; the resulting music brings him unexpected joy. Silence, too, speaks volumes, as they savor simply observing each other. (It can’t hurt that Lindon and Kiberlain were once a couple.)
Brizé, aided by Antoine Heberle’s beautifully intimate cinematography, takes pains to capture everyday working-class life in all its dull glory. There are extended scenes of Jean on job sites and Mme. Chambon in the classroom, and of him scrubbing his frail father’s feet and her home alone, screening her mother’s phone calls. But forever simmering underneath are haunted feelings of desire, discontent, and, for Jean, fear that he’s been going through the motions with the wrong partner. By the end, the question of whether familial responsibility or passionate spontaneity will win out is genuinely suspenseful.