“Mademoiselle Chambon” The Isolated Drifter
Male Stereotypes: Fear of Commitment, Wanderlust, Speculator
I grew up in the 50s when the average man was traditionally stereotyped as the guy who was always running away from the gal who wanted to lasso him into the corral of a home, a basement, a lawn, a mortgage, two kids, a picket fence, a garage with an electric garage-door opener.
The “ball-and-chain” metaphor often drove the narrative of male fears that they would be “tied-down” for life, that their “salad days” of wine, women, and song would come to a swift and inevitable end at the marriage altar. (The culture I grew up in just assumed, by the way, that, except for nuns who were the virginal “brides of Christ,”all women wanted to be married; the men, on the other hand, were often seen as the great “procrastinators.”)
Even up to more modern times, men have appropriated the many variations of the wanderlust tradition. They could leave town and their families, return in two weeks with a load of cash and provisions, no questions asked. They could “discover” a new land, a gold mine in Africa, a rubber plant in India. They could speculate on the stock market. They could open up a dry-cleaning business. They could empty the family savings account into a high-risk investment.
Female Stereotypes: Stay-at-Home Nurturer and Better at Intimacy
On the other hand, women were cast as the icons of stability and security. They would always be home. They would cook the meals on time, set the table, wash the dishes. They would change diapers, wash clothes, nurse a wound, cook chicken soup. They were the homebodies, the steady rocks of fidelity, the close-to-the-hearth gals who could always be depended on to be there when the sun rose and when the sun set.
And, as kids, we were schooled in the belief that women, in general, handled intimacy better than men, who were often ideally characterized as the “strong silent type,” the quiet negotiators, or the rough-and-tumble guys who could split wood and hammer a nail but could never tell you how they were really feeling (Silence always seemed to be an ideal male attribute while the stereotype of the “chattering” woman held its ground for decades in the culture I inherited).
Véronique Chambon, the Rootless Drifter
Stéphane Brizé sees the world differently in his film, “Mademoiselle Chambon.”
His central character Véronique Chambon is a drifter. She is an elementary school teacher and amateur violinist who never stays in the same school district for more than a year. And she is the sibling who is always overshadowed by a sister, whom we are told in a phone message, has just been appointed to the High Court in France.
Running. Never establishing roots. A life always in flux—the next town, the next classroom, the next set of acquaintances. Never getting close. Avoiding intimacy. Practicing her violin, alone, in front of her uncluttered music stand. And a small-village classroom of elementary children who adore her unpretentious confidence.
Enter Jean, the father of one of her students, Jérémy. A “strapping fellow,” as the old stories used to say—broad, thick shoulders, a thoughtful face, a confident, sturdy walk. And a man of few words, until he starts talking to her class about what he does as a builder and contractor (she asks him to fill in for one of the absent parents who had to cancel).
And then the camera looms in very slowly to her face as she sits enraptured by Jean’s work story. (This is the first time I have ever seen a camera move so slowly into a character’s facial expression. As the camera creeps towards her face, Véronique’s insulated world quietly begins to to open, layer by layer, to the possibility of an intimate connection to another human being.)
“You build a house to last a long time,” he tells one of the students. “If you do it well, it will last for life.” This is the first hint Véronique is given in the film about things lasting, of permanence, from the even, steady words of an ordinary worker who does not question his station in life. Unlike Véronique, Jean is firmly rooted in his world.
“My father was a builder,” he tells the class. “I like my job. We arrive, there’s nothing. A few weeks later, there’s a house.”
The passing on of things learned. Received skills from a parent. Service. Creativity. Community. Véronique’s expression reveals an emotional cosmos; she is soaking in everything about Jean that she never had in her own life. He is the missing link she has been yearning for: the connection to others, the groundedness of his life in a small community.
Classic Love Story—a Union of Opposites
Admittedly, this is a love story, a slowly evolving narrative of two people, from two different socio-economic worlds. But the love story seems almost incidental to the ground-moving internal changes that are happening to the characters.
Jean finds in Véronique an aesthetic, interior, self-reflective sensibility he has never known, which, in the brief time they spend with each other, takes him through a wringer of emotions and reactions—vulnerability, affection, inquisitiveness, anger, withdrawal, grief, obsessiveness, fatigue.
Not many viewers will be able to forget the quiet concentration of Jean as he looks over one of Véronique’s book shelves at a sky-line print and then pages through one of her magazines. (He is waiting for her to wake up from a nap as he was finishing a French window he was putting in in her apartment).
When Jean later asks her to play the violin, he suggests that, because she is not completely confident, she play with her back towards him. His mixed expression of awe and sadness tells us just how profound his soulful reaction is to Véronique.
And, more significantly, this is a world, Jean has never experienced or even knew existed. As a man bound by hard labor and family obligations, he has never been exposed to Véronique’s upper-class sensibilities. She, on the other hand, has never experienced the kinds of connections Jean has to his nuclear family.
Although Véronique is not privy to all of the communal scenes, Brizé loads the film with intimate en famille gatherings as a clear antidote to Véronique’s social isolation: an opening family picnic with Jean, Anne-Marie, his wife, and his son, Jérémy, when they all try to determine what the “direct object” of a sentence is; a care-taking scene when Jean dutifully washes his father’s feet; the touching scenario when Jean accompanies his father to the funeral home to pick out a casket.
Brizé continues the ballet-like family gatherings with a card-playing scene between Anne-Marie and her son; a dining room family gathering with Anne-Marie ironing at the table and talking to Jean about whether or not have a buffet or a sit-down dinner at his father’s eightieth birthday (Anne-Marie’s innocent conversation jars Jean into a rage as he accuses his wife of not wanting to have the party—his rage is the only emotional outlet he has to vent his frustration over his increasing obsession with Véronique); and the birthday-party when Jean’s father and relatives listen to Véronique’s playing—Jean’s gift to his father and the occasion when Anne-Marie looks at her husband and realizes that her husband is in love with Véronique.
Brizé masterfully choreographs these communal scenes to contrast the private, insulated world of Véronique and the very intimate scenes between her and Jean.
However, even Brizés communal scenes have an intimacy that only the French seem to have mastered in their films, an intimacy the director constantly recreates in all the close-quarter scenes between the couple in Véronique’s apartment, in the car, listening to a recording, and even in an outdoor scene when Jean takes her to one of his old haunts overlooking the village.
The crack in the vase of their relationship occurs when Véronique comes to visit him at work. In one of her first moments of vulnerability, she says to Jean, “I think I’ve had enough of moving all the time; I’d like to settle and take it easy a bit,” putting out to him the possibility of her staying in the village.
In his panic, Jean says to her, “My wife’s pregnant.”
In one extended look, she realizes that fatalism of their relationship. She is struck again by the lightening-rod of his commitments, the old traditional loyalties of family that she has always been isolated from. Like a wounded animal, she withdraws into the forest of her own solitude, destined to be the single, isolated woman who will never find communal roots, will never experience an intimate relationship. In that brief moment of awareness, she makes her final decision to leave for Paris.
Brizé isn’t finished with the film’s relentless portrayal of Véronique’s social isolation. When she tells the principal her mind is made up not to return the next school year, the principal tries to convince her to stay saying that when she arrived at the isolated town, she thought it wouldn’t work for her until she found a husband and had children.
“Then I met my husband, and we had children, and we built something together, ” the principal says to Véronique. Husband, children, “something together”—the old family-bonding story Véronique will neither live to tell or experience.
There is a brief possibility of hope Brizé gives us when he has the couple consummate their sexual relationship, ending in Jean’s promise to meet Véronique at the train station to leave with her.
The next day, Jean makes a vain attempt, arriving at the station with his duffle bag, but then hesitates in the subway hallway, listening to the train arrive and leave after Véronique boards it for Paris.
Jean turns, walks back to the car and returns home to his wife who notices the duffle bag but distracts herself and Jean with a comment about the father’s birthday party. Brizé shoots the final scene of Jean seen in isolation sipping a cup of coffee as the camera moves further and further back from the kitchen French doors.
The failed love-relationship between Jean and Véronique, of course, is what the film’s narrative is ostensibly about. However, the existential narrative juxtaposes Véronique’s inability to find an emotional center either with someone else or a community and Jean’s safe and very small tribal community.
Véronique will always be the drifter, the female archetype of the outsider in a world from which she will always be left out.