Saturday, June 12, 2010

Brief Encounter

Joyce termed sentimentality “unearned emotion.” The same could be said for melodrama. The film Brief Encounter, based on Noël Coward's play Still Life, is a classic piece of melodrama, pulled along by the engine of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number #2.  Stéphane Brizé’s Mademoiselle Chambon has all the ingredients of melodrama. The music, in this case more subtly rendered by the British composer Edward Elgar, underscores the impossible love relationship between a shiftless, cultivated school teacher and a Lawrentian construction worker, Jean, trapped in the provinces, with a muted pre-verbal physicality. If there is a Madame Bovary in the film, it is in Jean’s muted aspiration for the world that Veronique Chambon represents. Yet there are so many lovely touches in Mademoiselle Chambon, underscored by the leitmotif of the window which runs through the film—the romance begins with Jean repairing Chambon’s window and ends with the vision of Jean and his wife Ann-Marie, now pregnant with a second child, viewed through a claustrophobic window shot. If there is any melodrama here, it is overshadowed by subtlety and artistry. In this regard, the movie is reminiscent of the understatement of Evan Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge novels. The affair is only one of a series of life passages Jean confronts, including a visit to a mortician with his father to decide on interment or cremation. Jean leaves a message on Veronique’s answering machine culminating in the simple phrase, “C’etait Jean,” and Veronique’s students write “Au revoir Mademoiselle Chambon” on a blackboard. In another exchange, Ann Marie says, “I think your father enjoyed his birthday,” to which Jean replies, “Yes, it was a good party.” In a previous epiphanic scene, Ann Marie, having seen the way her husband looks at his son’s teacher, understands everything. What is truly moving about Mademoiselle Chambon are the succession of moments that contain what Henry James termed “felt life.” In the end, Madame Chambon earns its emotion. 

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