Soft and gentle classical melodies cascade over the soundtrack of Stéphane Brizé's Mademoiselle Chambon, courtesy of composer Ange Ghinozzi. The score not only feels organically integrated into the material, but serves as a fitting commentary on its strengths. This is a drama as soft and understated as a minuet, as delicately constructed and as graceful as a sonata. The passions in it, however, run deep -- and the contrast between the slight exterior and the fierce eroticism at the movie's core is nothing short of riveting.
Vincent Lindon stars as Jean, a burly, ruddy-faced French builder satisfactorily married to Anne-Marie (Aure Atika); the two have a primary-school-aged son named Jérémy (Arthur Le Houérou). Jean's life turns an unexpected corner when he encounters Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), his son's unmarried violin teacher, and the overwhelming sexual magnetism that materializes between them deepens more fully when Véronique asks Jean to visit her flat and rebuild a window.
This may sound pedestrian or hokey, and it easily could have become so in inept hands. But Brizé's acute observational eye and deliberate pacing triumph over any potential pitfalls. In lieu of having the characters act on the immediate and obvious pull that threatens to guide them into a torrid extramarital affair, the director girds every scene in the unspoken -- awkward silences, pregnant pauses, and long, lingering gazes. As an adaptation of Eric Holder's novel, this must have been an overwhelmingly spare, performance-reliant script, because the characters' wordless exchanges generate a vast majority of the insights. Supplemented by Brizé's shot choices (he favors imperceptibly slow zoom-ins to the characters' faces), we see the desire building, and vying with the characters' shared reservations. The director also establishes, with perfect clarity, the nature of the attraction for each of the prospective lovers: the rugged, hirsute, and yet quiet masculinity that draws Véronique to Jean, and the cultural refinement and elegant sophistication that Jean perceives in Véronique, largely established through the classical music that she plays for him on her violin. The shots and dialogue that point to the sources of the mutual attraction are some of the most fascinating aspects of the movie, because they tie into issues of romantic perception.
The lingering question of whether or not Véronique and Jean will actually consummate their affair generates a fair amount of tension and suspense, and this is especially true for Jean, for whom the potential fallout and loss are far greater. But sex itself eventually retains far less significance than the broader concerns involving the future of the couple's relationship, and what it will mean for Jean and his family should the lovers decide to proceed with their indiscretions.
What the director builds up to is a single defining moment that finds Jean forced to make a split-second, potentially life-changing decision -- torn between his conflicting emotional obligations to two women, and realizing that whichever of the two paths he chooses, it will mean breaking someone's heart. That no-win decision arrives at the culmination of a long and difficult period of soul-searching undertaken by the character. This film should be lauded not only for the maturity and wisdom that it demonstrates in placing that rocky emotional and psychological process center stage, but also for the laconic elegance of its delivery.