June 7, 2010
Shovelling the rubble at a construction site, a faceless man introduces his actions before himself; an important distinction that will return time and again during the most pointed moments of this week’s most beautiful Australian film release, Mademoiselle Chambon (2009). After the imagery of someone’s broken home have been adequately ingrained in our memories we are introduced to the protagonist family and their dynamic; Jean (Vincent Lindon) a practical, seemingly simplistic man at the head of the family; devoted wife and mother Anne-Marie (Aure Atika), whose lack of nuance is heavily pronounced; and their son, Jeremy, whose presence serves as a mere implicative causal motivator in the weakening and strengthening of their familial foundations; the film primarily concerned with problematising the traditionally stable notion of “home”.
When Jeremy asks his parents to help with his French homework it becomes painfully obvious that a matter of mere syntax is too academic for them and, more specifically, for his mother. Anne-Marie, unable to sufficiently distinguish between ‘who’ and ‘what’ is immediately, and perhaps a little harshly, presented as an ordinary woman whose needs, wants, curiosities never stray from the basic comforts of familial life. Apparently content although evidently limited by her menial job working a factory line it comes as no surprise that she is physically, and of course figuratively too, disabled by her work so early in the film. Her disablement concurrently contrasted with Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon’s (Sandrine Kiberlain) – Jeremy’s school teacher – whose sole purpose in life and whose motivational drive is only ever enablement: enabling others to learn, to grow, to progress.
Anne-Marie’s back injury acts as the catalyst for the impending affair between Jean and shy beauty Veronique when he anomalously collects Jeremy from school. Almost immediately she puts upon him her own agenda, inviting him to speak to her class about his work as a builder on construction sites; again reinforcing the significance of enablement and progression, an invitation he unwittingly accepts. His interaction with the class is indeed the most revelatory conversation that takes place for the duration of the film, his answers key to understanding his later actions. Suggesting he renovates as well as builds houses, he allows an interpretation that the family unit can be remodelled just as bricks can be re-laid. But he is clearly conflicted: asserting that foundations must be a solid base upon which to build, a trade he says he learnt from his father, a nod to the patriarchal structure of the traditional ideal of the familial “home”. When a child poignantly, and painfully, asks, “Do you build a house for life?”, he answers with such bare honesty that an audience can’t help but feel her fall in love with him, “If you do it well, it lasts for life… It doesn’t always go according to plan.” Longevity is indeed aspirational though it is ultimately one’s actions that dictate future outcome.
Veronique initiates further contact openly admitting her life needs remodelling- specifically, a draughty window. And of course a window is a loaded point of entry, unlike a door it allows the outsider to view a certain level of interiority, and what’s more, the window in cinema is often theorised as an indicator for the screen, a point of entry which provides a phenomenological view to the film world and the characters’ lives therein. In so thoughtful and well-observed a character drama as this, it is clearly no coincidence and so, as he steps into her apartment to fix the window he simultaneously steps into her world, phenomenologically implicated in and affected by her existence thereafter. Later, as the film draws to a close, and in direct contrast to this moment that allows so much beauty, fluidity – music – flooding into his world, there is another crucial window. The final shot of the film focuses on an outside view to his life inside the familial “home”, signifying the end of the affair and of the embodied experience for both our protagonists onscreen and ourselves in the auditorium.
Measured and thoughtful in its assemblage, Mademoiselle Chambon gives of itself right up until the point where it must stop so that one’s heart aches but does not bleed in sympathy for its bold honesty and perfectly imperfect characters. Vincent Lindon, whose recent role in Pour Elle (Anything For Her, 2008) showcased his talents as a strong dramatic lead, here holds consistent and flawless reserve, always conveying so much more through his acting than his words. A film so impressively explicative of cinematic phenomenology ought to be experienced in a cinema where it may be as embodied in reception as it evidently was in production. Stunning.