Before the Winter Chill, 2013.
Written and Directed by Philippe Claudel.
Starring Daniel Auteuil, Kristin Scott Thomas, Leila Bekhti and Richard Berry.
Lucie presumes that her husband Paul – an older neurosurgeon – has an affair. Indeed, Paul behaves strange lately, but the truth behind it is dark and complicated.
It began as a domestic drama, about a married doctor becoming obsessed with a beautiful young woman, who claims to be a former client. Later, it would take a different direction entirely, its sudden incidental ‘twist’ changing how I viewed the entire preceding film. I left the cinema without the sense of certainty one is required to possess as a film critic. I’d just seen Before the Winter Chill.
What is this unnerving film? An urban thriller? An existential horror? A high society drama veiled in noir and sprinkled with mysticism? Philippe Claudel’s third feature is certainly something unexpected – ostensibly about a surgeon, Paul (Daniel Auteuil), who’s lost interest in his own perfect life with wife Lucie (Kristin Scott Thomas), the film finds Paul drawn to a strange woman (Leila Bekhti) who suddenly seems to be everywhere. The bottom then begins to fall out on Paul’s comfortable existence, and it almost seems like writer/director Claudel is the one playing tricks on him.
It’s a Cache-esque influence in a film seemingly loaded with them. The two films share a male lead in Daniel Auteuil, for starters. Before the Winter Chill is also, like Cache, an unsolvable mystery, the horror arising from our lack of knowing, with clues dismissed and even the finale suggesting we’ve been told only half the story. The movie is lensed in as chillingly plain a manner as Haneke’s masterpiece, too, with one particularly uneasy scene finding Paul guided by road diversions through a winding, darkening maze of sleaze, the path lined with hookers and johns looking for a cheap hook-up.
There were complaints after the screening about the coldness of Before the Winter Chill; I’d look at it more as the film’s speciality. The film is not just cold, but liable to leave you stunned out of some unspeakable fear, its menace felt in each and every frame. It’s a film that burrows deeper than you’d imagine, secretly unsettling as you pay attention instead to the central ‘mystery’. Another Cache influence: the mystery doesn’t actually matter at all. The feeling of anticlimax that comes when the ‘twist’ is revealed should be a big clue.
It’s a film that instead asks whether the fundamentally displeased can ever truly find happiness. It asks what happiness even means. The film’s not totally successful in its manner of storytelling – the denied relationship between Lucie and Paul’s best friend, Gerard (Richard Berry), serves its purpose as a way of highlighting Paul’s blind self-centredness, but Claudel builds on it so that Lucie gets our sympathy, even though she and Gerard never stop feeling like peripheral characters to Paul’s story.
Does the story also defy belief? Well, yes – the balance of realism and theatricality isn’t always right. Paul flipping out at relatively minor incidents of psychological torment, for instance (he anonymously receives flowers at work and at his office, leading him to accost Bekhti’s Lou in the street) seems off. Niggling story details, however, are beside the point. Following the screening, everyone in attendance at BIFF remained in their seats through the credits, something you don’t see nowadays outside of superhero movies.
The audience members were bewildered, I suspect, waiting for an explanation that wasn’t going to come. Whether they felt that they ‘enjoyed’ the film or not, the crowd sought closure from this chilly, complex beast. Cold it may be, but Before the Winter Chill also follows last year’s In the House as another thought-provoking French thriller revelling in darkness and despair. That Kristin Scott Thomas features in both is no accident – the presence of such an intelligent actress should be indication enough that Before the Winter Chill is worth a look.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.