Jan. 12 2011 12:00 AM

Silence says it all in 'Mademoiselle Chambon'

Although “Mademoiselle Chambon” begins with a family discussing the mysteries of grammar, language is almost beside the point in director Stéphane Brizé’s tale of temptation in a small French town. Words may have their place, but Brizé is fascinated by what is not said: Mellow and melancholy, the movie thrives on strained silences, potent pauses and those awkward, uncertain moments just before someone works up the courage to say something important.

Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a construction worker married to AnneMarie (Aure Atika), who works in a book factory. They live a quiet life with their young son, Jérémy (Arthur Le Houérou), until a seemingly innocuous incident turns everything around. Jérémy’s teacher, Véronique (Sandrine Kiberlain), asks Jean to talk to the class about his work and he agrees.

As Jean discusses the joys of building and remodeling houses, Véronique watches him, first with admiration, then with an intensity that seems to come from deep inside her heart. Brizé doesn’t have to tell us that Véronique is lonely and restless; everything we need to know is spelled out in Kiberlain’s eyes and subtle expressions. Later, Jean will look at her with almost exactly the same gaze as she plays the violin for him. Neither of them will notice the looks of longing at the time — he’s too busy paying attention to the kids, while she is thoroughly absorbed in her music — but an unspoken understanding is slowly blossoming.

The understated tension that gradually bubbles to the forefront of this moving, intelligent story comes from Véronique’s peripatetic career. She is regularly transferred from region to region around the country, a pattern she’s adjusted to over the years. Jean feels weighed down by the baggage of family life and seems to envy her ability to travel, while Véronique is beginning to hunger for some stability and a permanent home.

While the discussions between Jean and Véronique about window repair and paint may not sound particularly provocative on the surface, the lengthy breaks in the dialogue suggest a secret communication that’s much more exciting than anything we can actually hear. It’s a startling contrast to so many romantic comedies in which the couplein-the-making banters their way into bed. If this was Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude,” Jean and Véronique would suddenly break the fourth wall and give us heartwrenching monologues, but in “Mademoiselle Chambon,” the characters spell out everything they’re feeling non-verbally.

In choosing to say so much by saying so little, Brizé (who co-wrote the screenplay with Florence Vignon) is demanding a lot from both his actors and his audience. It wouldn’t be difficult for Lindon and Kiberlain to slip into hokey, silentmovie-style expressions to convey their silent suffering, yet they modulate their emotions astonishingly well. (The way they stare at each other eagerly, as if they were trying to memorize every detail and every gesture, is even more impressive when you find out the two were actually once married in real life.)

Since Brizé is not willing to take the easy way out, by making AnneMarie a shrew or Jérémy an insufferable brat, Jean and Véronique know that whatever they do someone is going to get hurt. Sometimes, as in that old song, love lifts you up where you belong. In “Mademoiselle Chambon,” love leads two people into a state of limbo, in which pleasure and pain are inextricably linked.

’Mademoiselle Chambon’

Lansing Film Society Series 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12, and Thursday,
Jan. 13 East Lansing Hannah Community Center 819 Abbot Road, East
Lansing 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. Friday, Jan.14 and Saturday, Jan. 15 South
Kedzie Hall, MSU $7 adults; $5 seniors; $3 students