Dir: Philippe Claudel • Wri: Hayao Miyazaki • Pro: Yves Marmion, Romain Rojtman • Ed: Elisa Aboulker • DOP: Atsushi Okui • MUS: André Dziezuk DES: Samuel Deshors • CAST: Daniel Auteuil, Kristin Scott Thomas, Leïla Bekhti
Paul (Auteuil) and his wife Lucie (Scott Thomas) live a privileged, upper-class life. While their many years of contented marriage may have reached a state of complacency and comfortable routine, they none the less remain in love. As a highly successful neurosurgeon, Paul enjoys a reputation among his patients as a kind and reassuring surgeon. One day, he runs into Lou (Bekhti), a woman who claims to be a former patient and who shows a disconcerting amount of gratitude and enthusiasm toward Paul. Dismissing these clear advances of the younger woman, Paul thinks nothing of it until bouquets of flowers begin arriving at his home and workplace every day, which he naturally assumes are being sent by the younger woman. With this unexpected interruption to their stagnant home life, the beginnings of a rift between Paul and Lucie emerge. Unspoken understandings begin to be questioned, Lucie’s frustrations about her suffocating domestic life take hold and Paul’s obsession with unravelling the enigma that is Lou threatens both his marriage and ultimately himself as a much deeper and more dangerous mystery emerges.
As a trio, director Philippe Claudel, Scott Thomas and Auteuil are an excellent collaborative force. It’s often a failing of films such as this which attempt to quickly create some form of idealised home life only to disrupt it, to simply tell us that the characters are in love. Claudel instead takes his time allowing us to observe their routine while Scott Thomas and Auteuil have a thoroughly believable and lived-in chemistry which shows their relationship through subtle, silent moments of intimacy rather than forced dialogue. Scott Thomas is as ever effortless, here playing the polite, smiling wife whose family problems and growing frustrations at her static lifestyle begin to unravel her. Disappointingly she ultimately ends up as almost a tertiary character as even the revelations about her are overshadowed by Paul and Lou’s plot.
Claudel’s direction displays as much effortlessness as Scott Thomas’ performance. Combined with Lenoir’s cinematography, the film looks gorgeous. The large, ultra-modern, ‘glass-casket’ (as one character calls it) home of the characters is photographed beautifully through the changing seasons and is used very effectively to build an atmosphere of frustration and imprisonment for Lucie. Equally Claudel shows great discipline in the visual language he chooses to employ. For example, in the way Lucie is almost always seen in some form of confined or closed space; be it her home, packed restaurants or waiting rooms. Amongst the only time she’s ‘allowed’ to roam free is in the house’s expansive gardens which she meticulously maintains and shows to tourists but, which the film frequently reminds us, is closed off from the world by a large, solid, metal gate. It’s a pity then that all of this is in the end, in service of very little.
The core themes being explored are hardly unique. The suffocating nature of domesticity for the wife concerned about the projected exterior image and her unfilled life in the shadow of the professionally more successful husband, are some of the most well-trodden ground in cinema. Gorgeous cinematography and an accomplished atmosphere of unease that makes the film feel not unlike NBC’s Hannibal (but without the killing) are definitely to be praised but it is little more than window-dressing without anything deeper to build upon it. The issue is that the film is playing a much subtler game with the audience, trying to distract them with the domestic plot to play down what its story is really about. Unfortunately it does too good of a job of hiding this to the point that when it’s finally revealed, it comes across as arbitrary and inconsistent with the rest of the film.
From the plot summary at the beginning you may notice it sounds not unlike the plot of Caché. That particular striking similarity only gets stranger when you realise both films share the same lead. Before the Winter Chill is without doubt more visually inventive and interesting than Caché but it also fails to commit to its central mystery the same way that film did. The film shrugs off its mystery-plot as nothing sinister when in fact it’s all the time building toward a revelation far more visceral and unambiguous than its spiritual predecessor. Sadly, the complete lack of focus or interest that the film shows in that portion of the plot means that when the twist is sprung on us it’s completely incongruous with what came before. It does justify what up until then seemed like the slightly schizophrenic characterisation of Lou but is again largely ignored in the dénouement and reacted to with a bizarre non-reaction from the characters in the final scenes.
This is by no means an unpleasant film. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable if ultimately a tad unoriginal in either its thematic explorations or its attempt at a mystery plot. On a technical and performance level the film is genuinely excellent with both leads convincingly carrying the film with ease. The cinematography alone is almost worth it, the whole enterprise is just let down by its own lack of focus, and then sudden extreme focus, on what should be its central mystery, leaving the overall experience a rather uneven one.
Before the Winter Chill is released on 9th May 2014