About a week or so ago, I watched the French film Madamoiselle Chambon; the film was released in 2009, with a positive reception from audience and critics on both sides of the pond. The basic plot structure is a seemingly introverted roaming school teacher and a local artisan contractor, who is the father of one of her students, develop a mutual attraction in the south of France. Underneath this narrative, the film is ultimately concerned with physical and emotional space, with the planar and volume space of the mind, the heart, and the landscape. Actual geographic spaces are purposely constructed, such as is done by the school teacher, who moves each new year, away from towns and people and relationships, her family and her old life as an almost successful concert violinist, away from potential to root herself in a familiar space and reveal her buried planes of thoughts and desires. Intimacy barriers and deep conceptual chasms are also constructed, such as is done by the builder with his devoted and loving wife.
Each character presents a particular surface, a type of buffer between their inner myriad planes and their environment, their interactions with others; the builder presents a rough and concrete surface, however, in the scene where the initial fascination and amour is implanted in the school teacher, we watch him describe his work with a tender and gentle reverie. This tenderness, this gentle pride in his life, is later mirrored in a silent scene, where we watch as he washes the feet of his elderly father, who was a builder before him. The shy school teacher hesitantly initiates conversation with this man, then grows subtly more bold in her pursuit and her seduction, inviting him into her home, playing her violin for him with his back turned so he cannot watch, while simultaneously maneuvering within the confines of her own personal fears of failure and her guilts born from accepted social morals.
This is a slow film, it traverses along its narrative arc and within the realms of each character's space carefully, however, it is far from dull or trying. The dialogue is in some instances so realistically mundane, it is painful, and beautifully lyric; we forget this is a fictional story. The characters are natural, at ease; their appearance and costumes are typical, as though we are watching them from a cafe on the street. More important than what is stated are the silences, which sounds trite; the camera focuses on pauses in the conversation, on moments when the characters refuse to speak aloud or cannot speak aloud, when the characters sit alone and thinking, and the yearning, the desire, the pain, the confusion, all is wonderfully palpable.
Until a final climax, which I will not reveal, the most violent and aggressive aspect of the film is the volatile and beautiful climate of southern France; the turmoil of each character, the builder in particular, manifests in the whipping winds of the chaparral desert cliffs. In addition to beautiful views of this majestic landscape, a force in itself to be reckoned with, the score is amazing, subtle like the movements in narrative and the dialogue, moving in ebbs and flows, a focus on classical violin and piano, a manifestation of the school teacher's greatest dreams and fears.
(image taken from Concrete Playground)