Philippe Claudel began his directorial career with a film about a woman trying to put her life back together after serving time for the deliberate murder of her own child. Released in 2008, I Have Loved You So Long is widely credited with triggering Kristin Scott Thomas’ transformation into one of those French actresses who seems to grow more subtle and radiant with each passing year. Claudel’s third film finds him re-united with Scott Thomas for another of those grown-up dramas that are becoming increasingly rare in the English-speaking world. There are many reasons for surrendering to the charms of Before the Winter Chill but the first and foremost of these charms is the aloofness of the characters.
The film opens with one of those typically French pastoral scenes in which a large group of friends is sat at a long table enjoying lunch in the garden. The garden is perfectly maintained and the man of the house gets up to fetch another bottle of champagne, a gesture that momentarily surprises his wife. This scene sets the tone for the entire film.
Paul (Daniel Auteuil) is a celebrated neurosurgeon reaching the end of his career. The film makes it abundantly clear that he is both an intelligent and a sensitive man who is loved by everyone around him. However, what the film does not show us is Paul doing any actual work. We see him meeting his patients, we see him sharing a cigarette with an underling, but we do not see him operating. To tie this imagery back to the opening scene, he is a man who enjoys the fruits of nature without having to labour.
One of the undoubted fruits of Paul’s existence is his wife Lucie (Kristin Scott Thomas). Lucie met Paul at a young age and threw herself into the task of becoming the perfect wife; a woman who strives all day to maintain the beauty of both herself and the family home whilst expecting nothing from life but the love of her husband. Almost every shot of Scott Thomas is of her maintaining the couple’s enormous garden and almost every scene begins with her character asking Paul if he would like something to eat or drink.
Claudel introduces us to this pastoral idyll whilst working furiously to undermine it. Paul drifts through life on a velvet cloud but any attention paid to the faces of his friends and family is rewarded by hints of melancholy and aggression. Paul might not realise it, but his best friend (Richard Berry) hates him and his wife is profoundly upset about something. Indeed, Scott Thomas’ performance is absolutely mesmerising; a very British veneer of smiles and niceness that occasionally cracks, allowing torrents of raw emotion to spill out all over the floor. There is one particularly amazing sequence in which Paul and Lucie dance, but while Paul’s face is full of smug contentment, Lucie’s is full of alienation and longing.
The tension between the way that Paul feels about his life and the way that everyone else feels about Paul’s life resolves itself thanks to a chance encounter in a café. Paul answers his mobile in front of an attractive waitress named Lou (Leila Bekhti) who claims to have been one of his patients. She claims that he was nice and that this niceness counted for a lot when she was little and scared. Unsure what to make of these flirtatious comments, Paul walks away only to begin receiving unsolicited bunches of flowers.
Before the Winter Chill is a film that is interested in the impenetrability of other people’s emotions; the opening act reveals an image of material wealth and social success that is blighted by some unidentifiable melancholy. We know that Paul’s wife, family and friends resent him but we know neither what he has done to annoy them nor why they continue to spend time with him. Paul’s motivations – like those of all the characters – are hidden from view and glimpsed only in the time it takes for a sour comment or a reproachful glare to be explained away by tiredness or irritation at someone else. This is a world in which people do not talk, a world in which the audience is expected to function as a detective.
The film’s central mystery is a beautiful art student named Lou who seems to be very taken with Paul. Forced to assume Paul’s viewpoint, the audience is asked to keep guessing about Lou’s motivations; in one scene she is a young woman attracted to an older married man, then she is a stalker, next she is gravely disturbed and in need of help. All of these versions of Lou seem to exist in Paul’s head at the same time and his need to ‘solve’ the puzzle of Lou encourages him to spend time with her in a way that only serves to enrage his family and expose the tensions between them. While the film may begin by asking us to identify with Paul and ask why everyone is so grumpy, the film ends by asking us to identify with Lucie and ask: Why didn’t he put that much effort into making sense of the people who love him? Why did he open up to a peculiar stranger but keep everyone else at arm’s distance? How could he ask so much and give so little?
Before the Winter Chill defies no genre conventions and breaks through no boundaries. From the very first shot, it is recognisable as one of those grown-up French dramas about middle-class people having mid-life crises and it never aspires to be anything else. However, despite the unconventional subject matter and the casting choices that seem designed to invite comparisons to well-received films, there is real purpose and brilliance in Claudel’s work.
The Edwardian literary critic I.A. Richards once argued that poetry was our only defence against a rising tide of advertisers and manipulative politicians. According to Richards, poetry is so inaccessible that the only way to make sense of it is to acquire a set of critical skills. These critical skills, once acquired, cannot be turned off meaning that anyone who learned how to read poetry would be inoculated against all attempts to manipulate them via the written word. While Richards may have been over-optimistic about the ability of literary criticism to save the world, he was quite correct to say that certain works are harder to understand and that trying to make sense of these difficult works encourages you to develop a set of skills that make us more sophisticated reader.
Philippe Claudel’s Before the Winter Chill is a difficult film; its exposition is subtle and its characters are aloof. It is a film that presents the audience with a riddle but none of the tools with which to solve it. Far from being an accident, the film’s emotional aloofness is central to its theme as we are just as cut off from Lucie and Paul as they are from each other. Watching a film like Before the Winter Chill encourages us to work on our own sense of empathy and the distances that separate us from the people we love. Beautiful, poignant and unapologetically difficult, Philippe Claudel’s latest film is a master class in humanity.