Sunday, April 14, 2024

An Affair to Forget

At its best, the French import “Mademoiselle Chambon,” which opened Friday at a handful of Palm Beach County theaters, finds magic in the minutiae: the humorous questions asked by a classroom of children to an accommodating bricklayer, a crowd reacting in silent but telling ways to a hesitant violin solo, a caring man bathing the feet of his elderly father.

Best of all, the opening dialogue scene presents a single static shot of two parents helping their child with his language homework during an outdoor picnic. But this familiar scene of domesticity at rest contains wry observations about our retention of supposedly book-learned information – or lack thereof — as we get older. Writer-director Stephane Brize shows the parents fumbling over the distinction of a noun their son is supposed to identify in a test sentence, and the scene plays out as a comment on the useless syntactical structures to which we’re supposed to adhere.

These are the kind of finely tuned, lovingly photographed, humanistic moments many viewers attend European arthouse movies for, detached as they are from the Hollywood factory, where every moment of every scene is intended to push forward a plot when sometimes we just want to see our protagonists breathe. If only the rest of “Mademoiselle Chambon” – the roughly 80 minutes of story surrounding these small revelations of character – shared their distinction and liveliness. Instead, the film is a well-directed, well cast, exquisitely shot waste, with its talented resources pooling toward a languorous, banal study of a midlife affair.

It starts when husband Jean (Vincent Lindon) meets his son’s teacher, the frail and unconventional blonde beauty of the title (Sandrine Kiberlain). She’s new in town, she’s lonely and she would love it if Jean, a builder and handyman, would install a new window in her apartment. This could be the start of many a porno, but to Brize’s credit, she lets her characters discover themselves a little bit before thrusting them into bed, and even this is accomplished with an absence of melodrama. But the film’s lack of theatrics doesn’t necessarily make the goings-on subtle or enigmatic; Brize’s tentative lovers remind us the action could just as easily be bloodless and empty.

I would love to think the scene with the child’s homework and its foggy ambiguity of language rules is a metaphor for the marital structure to which the father, Jean (Vincent Lindon), is legally beholden and quietly breaks. But like most interpretations I’ve read about “Mademoiselle Chambon,” this is pure conjecture. Critics who have spoken favorably about the film have written about what they wish was on the screen, intellectually stretching the minimal amount of material Brize provides until it fits around their theories. But to get beyond the surface, there must be enough of a surface to ponder; interpreting genius strokes between the frames of “Mademoiselle Chambon” is like culling existential depth from a book of blank pages. The film contains no dramatic tension, and by extension, no reason to care about any of these characters, leaving us only with a few isolated nuggets of wisdom.

“Mademoiselle Chambon” is playing now at Regal Shadowood, Sunrise Mizner Park and Regal Delray.

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