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New Release Review - Before the Winter Chill

A middle-aged neurosurgeon befriends a troubled, mysterious young woman.

Directed by: Philippe Claudel
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Kristin Scott Thomas, Leïla Bekhti, Richard Berry




French Neurosurgeon Paul (Auteil) and his English wife Lucia (Scott Thomas) find themselves in a middle age, middle class funk, their relationship not what it once was. In a café close to his office, a young North African waitress, Lou (Bekthi), introduces herself to Paul, claiming he performed a life-saving operation on her when she was a young girl. Paul begins to receive flowers at his office, his hospital and his home, all from an anonymous source. Repeatedly running into Lou, he accuses her of harassing him, a claim she denies. Paul apologises and befriends Lou, quickly becoming entranced by this mysterious young woman, to the detriment of his work and his marriage.
We've seen many film-makers use the narrative gimmick of opening their movies with a flash forward to the story's climax. It's a lazy technique that often creates the impression that the film-maker has a lack of faith in their story, as if they're saying "Stick around, something exciting will happen, I promise". Rarely is it an effective technique and more often than not it can be detrimental, as it removes some of the element of surprise. Philippe Claudel employs the technique here, opening his movie with a revelation about Lou that impacts how we view the character through the following story. In this case it works, as it gives us a crucial piece of information denied to the film's protagonist, Paul. This creates an element of suspense, but it also adds a wonderfully melancholic atmosphere. Like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Auteil's Paul is essentially falling for a ghost.
Before the Winter Chill resembles a gentler, more lugubrious remake of Haneke's Hidden and it borrows more than a few of that film's plot elements. Both movies feature a middle class couple's life invaded by a mysterious force. In Haneke's film, Auteil received mysterious VHS surveillance tapes, here he receives anonymously sent bouquets of red roses, a plot element unanswered in both cases. The two movies share the suicide of a North African character, in a clumsy and strained piece of commentary on France's colonial past. Claudel also adds a reminder of France's wartime Nazi collaboration in a scene involving an elderly Jewish woman, which feels out of place despite being the film's most effective moment. Claudel injects a message about the negative effects of displacement, with Lucia's sister's spell in a psychiatric ward blamed on their parents' decision to move the girls to France at a young age. Both Paul and Lou share absent Daddy issues. As cod psychology goes, this is some of the bluntest.
It was Claudel who made Scott Thomas France's number one actress by casting her in his 2008 debut I've Loved You So Long. Now the actress can be heard speaking French more often than her native English and it's only a matter of time before we reach 'Peak KST', the point when her CV contains more French titles than Anglophone ones. One can imagine Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche meeting on the set of The English Patient and making a pact to swap careers. KST's move to Gallic cinema was fruitful for many years but recently she's found herself relegated to insubstantial supporting wife roles, precisely the type of parts she fled English language cinema to avoid. That's the case once more here, with Claudel giving her little to do beyond looking sad faced while gardening.
There's a lot of clutter in Before the Winter Chill, with Claudel constantly bombarding us with his thoughts on colonialism, absent fathers and the role of bankers in the economic crisis, but when he focuses on the meat of the plot, the relationship between Paul and Lou, his film is a melancholy marvel.
7/10


Eric Hillis

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