Mellow noir

Pub date September 7, 2010
SectionFilm Review

FILM Every nation’s cinema has its share of memorable contributions to the narrative category of amour fou. But since the French came up with that term in the first place, we might as well grant them a certain supremacy. They definitely tend to arrive at the madness of a self-destructive love with less high melodrama (let alone misogyny) than is the U.S. norm.

Consider such prior Gallic exercises as Duvivier’s 1937 Pépé le Moko, Malle’s 1958 The Lovers, Truffaut’s 1981 The Woman Next Door, or Resnais’ recent Wild Grass (2009) — all strong in incident yet restrained in execution and complex in psychology. Many of these movies might be classified as "noir," the label French critics applied to postwar American thrillers first.

But their country’s films seldom replicated the sharply-defined good vs. evil conflicts between character, circumstance, fate, and gorgeous black and white stylization in those Hollywood B movies that created an eventual transcontinental cult. Instead, they were essentially intimate dramas whose roiling domestic emotions hurtled toward fatalistic, often fatal yet low-key implosions.

Stéphane Brizé’s new Mademoiselle Chambon is like that, a movie whose protagonists lunge toward each other — even though they shouldn’t, for their own sakes and everyone else’s.

Grave-voiced, craggy-faced Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a construction-site laborer; Anne Marie (Aure Atika) his assembly-line worker wife; Jeremy (Arthur Le Hourerou) the eight-year-old offspring who’s already better educated than either of them. One day Anne Marie suffers a temporarily disabling factory accident, leaving Jean to pick up Jeremy from school.

There, Jean first encounters Jeremy’s teacher, Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain). She has the willowy body of a veteran ballet dancer and a naturally refined air — at least by his limited experiential standards.

There’s an immediate if unadmitted spark between them, amplified when she asks him to address her fourth-grade class (there’s been a cancellation) on career day. He unexpectedly enthralls them describing how a house or school gets built — then she hires him to repair a drafty apartment window. As payment he asks her to play the violin, something she hasn’t done for anyone else in so long she plays with her back to him. You can imagine where this sequence’s heady repressed emotions are heading.

Yet Mademoiselle Chambon doesn’t get cheap about it. None of these people are more than ordinary, kinda-attractive. Forty-something Jean has working-class-hero brawn but also a beer gut. His wife is a French Talia Shire circa Rocky (1976), and slightly younger Véronique resembles a more starved Agnès Jaoui.

As temptations and related tensions unravel their stability, Brize allows his characters to slip grip gracefully. No one behaves well, but they do behave credibly. This isn’t the outsized universe of Hollywood noirs 60 years ago, where men were men and women were frequently duplicitous, bullet-bra’d Shivas of destruction. Nor does it echo the medium’s occasional role-reversals, in which intoxicated family man turns hapless stalker. Or even the stop-me-please-I’m-having-too-much-good-sex-to-maintain-sanity likes of Last Tango in Paris (1972) or Betty Blue (1986).

Instead, Mademoiselle Chambon sees rational folk with well-organized lives stubbornly resisting a mutual pull whose logical outcome will surely suck for all concerned. It’s a fine, measured drama presented with typical Gallic insouciance — tenderly discreet even when conventional art and commerce shout for something more crudely dramatic.

Indeed, Brizé ultimately aligns over-much with the Brief Encounter (1945) school of thwarted-passion pathos. His refusal to artificially underline such emotions, however, is what elevates this from so many good movies nobody in their right mind would confuse with reality.

MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON opens Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters.