Before The Winter Chill (Avant l’hiver)

France (2013) Dir. Philippe Claudel

Having enjoyed great success together and both being well rewarded for 2008’s I’ve Loved You So Long director Philippe Claudel reunites with Kristin Scott-Thomas, for this sparse drama to see if lightening can strike twice.

Paul (Daniel Auteuil) is a respected neurosurgeon with a busy schedule that is leaving him a bit tired. When served in a cafe one day the waitress Lou (Leïla Bekhti) tells Pauls that he once operated on her appendix when she was a child and she never forget his kind nature. Shortly after bunches of roses are regularly delivered to both Paul’s office and his home, where his slightly bored wife Lucie (Scott-Thomas) starts to wonder if her husband is having an affair.

It’s not actually that straight forward as initially Lucie shares Paul’s frustration and they believe he has attracted a stalker – no surprises who the prime suspect is. Claudel’s story is not just a “marriage in trouble” melodrama, doubling up as a disappointingly toothless satire on the middle class bourgeois lifestyle, a staple of French cinema. There are a few subplots running concurrently with the main thread of Paul and Lou’s illicit relationship which don’t quite have enough meat on them to be fully satisfying.

Lucie and Paul have an adult son Victor (Jérôme Varanfrain) who has a child himself with wife Mathilde (Laure Killing), but it seems Victor is heading down the same road as Paul leaving Mathilde in a right state with Lucie doing her best to assuage her fears. But when the suspicions of Paul’s affair arise, Lucie’s advice is less diplomatic when she fears a second marriage is about to crash and burn too.

Meanwhile long time friend of the not-so happy couple Gérard (Richard Berry), also a doctor and the third wheel on their nights out, who has a secret relationship with a younger women going. But, he seems to a lot closer to Lucie then he is Paul, and while you can see where this is going, Gérard keeps his feelings to himself as he watches the marriage slowly crumble.

For a film with so much going on this a slow burner yet the first twenty minutes or so are choppily edited with the situations and passages of time flying by quite quickly. The set up and key plot points are still easy to follow but it gives the impression Claudel is in a hurry for something, which is ironic considering how much the pace eventually tapers off from a sprint to a gentle stroll.

The cynical pricking the egos of the middle class may not be too evident as a central theme with the depiction of Paul and Lucie’s lives being no different from any other affluent couple – big house, opera fans and Lucie the bored stay at home housewife. Yet it does come across in the presentation, as Claudel has shot this film in a very sterile and direct manner. Everything is workman like and rather cloying in how it captures the moments. This lack of flair is perfectly conducive to creating the awkward and tense atmosphere required for such a complex situation.

The root of the problem, that being Lou’s presence, also plays out in a pseudo bunny boiler manner; her actions are certainly suspicious – appearing wherever Paul is and acting exceptionally cheery and inviting around him – yet they are also circumstantial. At first Paul is hostile towards Lou but she begins to intrigue him and soon he is displaying all the symptoms of an adulterous husband.

But nothing is as it seems and getting to know Lou and her history better offers more answers than questions for Paul, but Claudel is keen to ensure we fall into the same trap that Paul does and gives nothing away. Same may have figured the twist out before it happens, some won’t but either way it is tautly executed and offers an effective turning point to leads us into the final act.

For an award winning author Claudel doesn’t show the same depth of character and measured storytelling he did with I’ve Loved You So Long, where he got so much out of so little. Here Claudel perhaps overloads the story a little, sticking to either one of the two themes he wishes to explore. This conflicted dichotomy from trying to incorporate both results in to the occasional moment where the film ambiguously stands still.

Claudel presumably felt casting Kristin Scott-Thomas would immediately elevate the stock of this film and indeed she doesn’t let him down with another effortlessly wistful performance, but Lucie isn’t as fleshed out as well as Paul, so Scott-Thomas is left to look adorably lost most of the time. Daniel Auteuil has done it all in film so seeing him in such a “normal” middle aged role is a little distracting but he captures the essence of the internal trials of a confused man with his usual understated manner.

It’s a little hard to tell what is going on with Mathilde as she seems to go from one extreme to the other but Laure Killing obliges with every stage of this confused role. Similarly Leïla Bekhti brings a mysterious energy to Lou but isn’t given enough time to fully explore her personality or what her fateful ramblings mean. Richard Berry seems to enjoy himself as Gérard but again he isn’t given sufficient time to establish how he could become a threat to Lucie and Paul’s marriage.

Because of the success of I’ve Loved You So Long, expectations for Before The Winter Chill would be unfairly high and comparisons will undoubtedly be made between the two. This is erroneous as they are different films and I’ve Loved You was a tough act to follow at which Claudel made a valiant but conventional attempt to do so. Commitment to single theme is necessary otherwise this is a solid, well made and engaging modern slice of French melodrama.