Brief Encounter isn’t just a stone-cold classic—it’s a genre-seed. Any film in which two people flirt with adultery only to (mostly) hold back— In the Mood for Love, the recent Cairo Time—is directly derived from David Lean and Noël Coward’s 1945 almost-romance. Stéphane Brizé’s Mademoiselle Chambon follows firmly in its path. Too firmly.
A working-class stiff (Vincent Lindon) with a loving wife (Aure Atika) falls for his beloved son’s single, middle-aged teacher (Sandrine Kimberlain). Lindon, of course, has no intentions of skipping out on his family; likewise, Kimberlain is no Jezebel, and doesn’t want to rob her student of a dad. As with every film of the Brief Encounter ilk, Chambon traps its two would-be lovers in maddening, ever-polite relations, their roiling passions contained behind sad-eyed stares and hesitant conversation. But that’s the film’s problem: It’s doing nothing that hasn’t been done before, even if it’s doing it very well.
The actors do fine work. Both Kimberlain and Atika scored César nominations, though it’s Lindon, with his puppy-dog eyes and gravelly voice, who really walks off with the film. Utterly confused by his emotions, he buries himself in work, and Brizé dedicates a good chunk of the film to long takes of him at his construction job, methodically layering bricks and knocking out drywall, anything to keep his mind off the present clusterfuck. But even that performance follows a template—it’s a slightly more emotive variation on Heath Ledger’s monumental Brokeback Mountain turn, the man’s man denying his desires and letting his body turn into a husk.
Like its characters, Chambon is locked into a well-established groove from which it barely deviates. And when, finally, it does, it seems like a cheat—a disingenuous, not-buying-that move followed by a punishment the characters hardly deserve.
Krizé’s style is arresting, all patient shots with almost no score; this is one of the quietest movies you’ll ever see, and the quiet only raises the intensity. But it’s still paint-by-numbers filmmaking, even if the numbers add up to something worthwhile.