As a thirty-year marriage crumbles in Luxembourg, Philippe Claudel’s Before The Winter Chill goes beyond family drama to find a black heart of darkness.
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After winning multiple awards with his debut feature I’ve Loved You So Long, Philippe Claudel’s second film Tous Les Soleils disappeared without trace – not even making it onto UK screens, large or small. But now he’s back with his Luxembourg-set Before The Winter Chill. And this time Kristin Scott Thomas is sharing the limelight with Daniel Auteuil in this excruciating drama of a marriage palpably disintegrating, a wife observing her husband slowly distance himself from her when she finds out he’s met a young woman. And with its police interview opening, there’s a dark sense of foreboding to Claudel’s tale, similar to the criminal mystery surrounding Juliette in Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, that Scott Thomas’ gardener Lucie might just flip and eke out bloody revenge. But this time passions are running cool and well under control, even though there’s a wintry chill in the air.
Neurosurgeon Paul (Daniel Auteil) is being questioned by police about a young woman who claims he had removed her appendix as a child. And while Paul spends all the hours God sends at the clinic or in surgery, his wife Lucie (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a stay-at-home grandmother, opening her garden up to visitors and looking after her granddaughter with her daughter-in-law. But when Paul reschedules his diary from a bar and student barmaid Lou (Leïla Bekhti) thanks him for the kindness he showed her when he operated on her as a girl, he starts to receive a delivery of flowers both to his home and his surgery every day. Suddenly he sees Lou everywhere – at the theatre, in the street, at his friend Gérard’s psychology practice, in the red-light district. And when he catches sight of her in a florist’s shop he loses it. Stressed, he blacks out during an operation and is persuaded to take some time off, but as he apologises to Lou over a drink, they begin a relationship that threatens to put everything in danger.
Lou is everything a middle-aged man could want. She’s young and pretty of course, but she’s also intelligent (a history of art student), social (a barmaid and late-night drinker), mysterious (Lou, it turns out, isn’t registered at the History of Art faculty which closed down three years ago), sexy (working as a part-time prostitute) but with a strong moral code (causing a scene when Paul accuses her of being a whore). And popping up all over Luxembourg City, it’s more than just a chance encounter though that brings them together, for Paul is in fact at the centre of a deception to take his money and kill him. Lou is simply a honey-trap, a fictional character designed to appeal to Paul – bait that becomes too attached to him and escapes her feelings of guilt through suicide. And while there’s a touching irony as Paul continues to mourn for Lou with a tape of Moroccan intoned chanson even after he finds out the truth, it’s a shame that Claudel waits until the final reel to unmask the mystery; choosing for his film a low simmer of conjugal torpor instead of the bunny-boil of treacherous love.
Of course, Philippe Claudel is all about the mystery. Domestic, intimate and in its own quotidian way, tragic. And it’s a skeleton in the closet kept alive by Kristin Scott Thomas, as the pained, abandoned wife, lost in a marriage filled with an ever-widening gulf of absence and disinterest. But rather than zeroing in on the understated deliciousness of Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance, as her shrewd and suspicious wife lowers over her spectacle rims or glances askance at her long-suffering beau Gérard, Before The Winter Chill puts Daniel Auteuil’s sombre performance in the spotlight instead – infusing the film with its own wintry chill of buried and unspoken passions.
With its awkward thirty-year-old ménage à trois, Avant l’Hiver is also more than a portrait of a philandering husband and a jilted wife. Above all, it’s a gentle explosion under the notion of enduring happiness. Dreams of youth fade, illustrated by Gérard’s melancholic remonstrations that he chose the wrong profession. While other unseized opportunities fester, like the torch he’s carried for Lucie since their student days. And while we’re never quite sure if Paul’s relationship with Lou is sexual or not, his attraction towards her stems from a rediscovered feeling of lightness – a nostalgic spontaneity that allows him to feel young again.
Just like Madame Malek’s fear that there’ll be no-one to remember the names of her brothers and sisters murdered in the gas chambers, or even know they existed, Before The Winter Chill bears witness to life in all its painful compromises and everyday dissatisfaction. And as the film ends with Sabiah (Lou’s real name) singing Comme Un P’tit Cocquelicot, the cassette of Moroccan music becomes another icon of lost innocence. Like the mists that descend over this middle-class couple’s garden and their “glass coffin” home, there’s a gloomy darkness at the centre of Before The Winter Chill. Even if with its beautiful cinematography, restrained performances and jaunty piano score, Claudel’s Before The Winter Chill is a very florid portrait of scenes from a breaking marriage, which like its male protagonist, with his penchant for classical music and museums, refuses to show its ugly side.
Before The Winter Chill is released on 9th May 2014 in the UK