Sunday, June 10, 2012

Are you here for an affair?

I know, romantic, right?
The title of the post is, of course, that great line Buck Henry wrote for himself to deliver in The Graduate.  And of course, Benjamin IS there for an affair.

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009), on the other hand, demonstrates that when one is out to make a romantic film, it is all-or-nothing.  Dithering one's way in and out of a relationship may be realistic, but it is hardly diverting or enlightening.  Noel Coward's lovers in Brief Encounter may have been English and talkative diffident and shy, but they were clearly and demonstratively and knowingly in a relationship, conflicted as they may have been and uncertain as to how they should proceed.  The lovers in Chambon don't seem to be able to figure out what they're doing at all.

It is possible to make films, even great films, driven by things other than classical dramatic narrative structure.  There are character portraits, explorations of environments or communities.  But you can't set a story on the knife edge of a binary choice--will-they-or-won't-they?--and leave it there for 100 minutes and engage an audience.  Or at least you'd have to be a greater artist than writer-director Stephane Brize.

At least Lean and Coward knew how to sustain the tension.  The affair remained unconsummated, although they did go to an apartment which Billy Wilder transmogrified into The Apartment.  In Chambon, the lovers go to bed but it is the audience that his put to sleep.  The encounter answers no questions, reveals no information, accomplishes nothing.

There is literally one interesting cinematic moment in Chambon, and you've seen it in other films, although actress Aure Autike as the wife in the middle, executes it perfectly.  We are at a little garden party, Mlle Chambon has been invited to play her violin, and she plays a piece of particular significance to her and her lover, Jean.  Jean, who has been established as a rather uncultured and inarticulate character (another problem with the film) is absolutely gobsmacked.  His jaw goes slack and his eyes go all gooey like a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.  But the way the wife sees it and makes the connection is quite wonderful, silent-film-style storytelling, and represents the one interesting moment that is not a pale shadow of Brief Encounter.

As a film buff, I can't help feeling your time would be better spent renting or buying the Criterion edition of Brief Encounter, rather than bothering with Mlle Chambon or even continuing to read this blog.  Go!  Now!

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