Novelist turned film-maker Philippe Claudel is covering all bases with Avant l’Hiver (Before the Winter Chill). His third outing as a director is part psychological thriller, part classic love triangle and part domestic drama with Daniel Auteuil once again showing masterly control over a storyline that crawls along at a snail’s pace leaving plenty of room for angst ridden introspection and moody silences.
Auteuil is Paul, a 60-something successful neurosurgeon who is married to Lucie (Kristen Scott-Thomas) and BFF with Gerard (Richard Berry). The couple have been married for thirty years and if the union lacks a certain spark, they are happy enough entertaining friends, spending evenings at the opera and weekends with the family. The routine is shattered when Paul starts to receive bouquets of red roses from a mysterious admirer. Suspicion falls on a beautiful, young Moroccan woman Lou (Leila Bekhti), a waitress in a cafe who claims she is one of his former patients. Initially unconcerned by the unwanted attention, Paul gradually becomes intrigued by Lou who reels him in with tales of her difficult childhood and her struggles as an art student in France. Before long, he has left the comfortable family home to spend more time with Lou. Seeing a rift in the marriage, Gerard confesses his love for Lucie who is reeling from the shock of discovering her husband’s interest in another woman and the disintegration of her safe, middle class existence. But worse is to come as it becomes apparent Lou is not the woman she says she is.
Putting the French middle class under the microscope is a path well-trodden by, among others, veteran director Claude Sautet – the man behind such classics as Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud and the not dissimilarly titled Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) also starring Daniel Auteuil. But where Sautet cast a non-too critical eye over the lives and loves of the bourgeoisie, Claudel depicts a group of people irritatingly smug in their selfish acceptance of the privilege that comes with their money and status. As Gerard bitterly points out to Paul, his only real problem is that life has been too good to him. He has a beautiful wife, a beautiful home and a career where he is admired and respected – an enviable position for most people in the ‘autumn’ of their existence . And yet he questions whether his life could have been different/ improved. Lucie is a similarly cold, unsympathetic character. Despite a faultless performance by Scott-Thomas, it’s impossible to warm to someone who complains her days are long and empty as if the blame lies with someone else. For Paul, Gerard and Lucie, their lives have been about choices and their constant navel gazing seems almost comically self-indulgent. It falls to Bekhti to inject some relief from the suffocating, tangled relationships between the three main protagonists. Unfortunately her character is not consistent enough to offer a fresh perspective on the unfolding drama and she fails to make a real impression. In French cinemas: 27/11/2013
DVD subtitled in English