22 May 2014

Philippe Claudel’s ‘Before the Winter Chill’

After the award-winning I’ve loved you so long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime) in 2008, Philippe Claudel wrote and directed Tous les soleils (2011), a comedy which has not been shown in the UK. His latest film (again with his script and direction) has come out here under the title Before the Winter Chill, a clunky translation of Avant l'hiver. Like I’ve loved you so long, it features Kristin Scott Thomas, whose presence probably secured the film’s release in the UK market.

Rotated in translation!
Scott Thomas takes the part of Lucie, wife of a neurosurgeon, Paul (Daniel Auteuil), who late in his career finds himself drifting into a strange relationship with a young Moroccan woman, Lou (Leila Bekhti). Claudel once more keeps his audience in a state of mild suspense as to the outcome while leading them in the wrong direction until late on. The main triangle is complemented by another between Paul, Lucie and their psychiatrist friend Gérard (Richard Berry), who clearly won’t hesitate to take his chance should their marriage start to crumble. The secondary characters help to sustain interest in an essentially slow plot. For example, Gérard helps Lucie in dealing with her sister Caroline’s illness, Paul bickers with their banker son, and there is a minor drama in his surgical team. Nonetheless, the two central performances are excellent: Auteuil gives a convincing portrayal of an intelligent man who, once removed from his métier, is an innocent abroad, while Scott Thomas gradually reveals Lucie’s increasing awareness of their problem, eventually, wounded but self-possessed, having to ask Gérard «Un patient ou une patiente?» (A man or a woman patient?)

I’m not sure where the film is set. Claudel was born in the Meurthe-et-Moselle department in the Lorraine region of north east France. His two previous films were set there, in particular partly in Nancy. Avant l'hiver seems to be located not far away, possibly in Luxembourg. Paul’s wife is played by Luxembourgeoise Vicky Krieps, and when Paul says he went to Mudam, he is referring to the Musée d'art moderne Grand-Duc Jean in Luxembourg. Certainly the standard of living seems like the Grand-Duchy, even if the number plates in the film look French. In an interview with AlloCiné, Claudel emphasised his film’s seasonal significance: ” … a man – a couple - before the winter of life, moving from a flamboyant autumn … a gradual loss of brightness. Despite the gloom which unfortunately accompanied all the filming, one feels, I hope this moisture, mist and cold, and the passage of time in the garden. The beauty of this image should be almost inversely proportional to the turbulence and chaos of feelings that shake the characters."

There are some obvious parallels between Avant l'hiver and another film recently posted about here, Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition. Both are concerned with the angst of upper-middle class couples who live in Modernist houses, though the France/Luxembourg one is more firmly in the Mies van der Rohe style. But whereas Kate Muir in The Times gave Exhibition 5/5, their Wendy Ide gave Avant l'hiver 3/5. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, who had shared Muir’s marking of Exhibition, went down to 2/5. Mark Kermode in the Observer again awarded 3/5. Well, I suppose it’s obvious that Claudel’s budget was many times Hogg’s, but I am, nonetheless, in no doubt as to which I thought the better film!

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