In the chic midwinter
BEFORE THE WINTER CHILL/ AVANT L’HIVER Directed by Philippe Claudel. Starring Daniel Auteuil, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Leila Bekhti, Richard Berry Club, QFT, Belfast; IFI, Dublin, 98 min
Those of us just the tiniest bit weary of bourgeois French drama will hear faint alarm bells ringing when, in the opening sections of Philippe Claudel’s third feature, we catch sight of Kristin Scott-Thomas dining languorously in her vast back garden.
Not for the first time, KST plays Lucie, the bored wife of a well-off middle-aged somebody facing up to a first-world crisis. Do we need to say that Daniel Auteuil – now a bit heavier and a bit more Depardieu – plays the brain surgeon unhappy with the happy life?
Before the Winter Chill turns out to be both stranger and more familiar than the initial set-up suggests. We soon learn that Lucie’s husband, Paul, is the victim of an initially benign outbreak of stalking. Every day a bunch of red flowers is delivered anonymously to house or surgery.
He soon figures out the sender must be Lou (Leila Bekhti), a young woman who claims to have had her appendix removed by him some years earlier (unlikely, given his speciality, but still just about possible). Then Lou makes appearances in unlikely places. She attends the same opera recital as Paul. She visits the psychiatrist who shares his office. He spots her among other sex workers on the outskirts of town.
The presence of Auteuil in the cast and the hints at post-colonial angst – his stalker is of North African descent – render unhelpful comparisons with Michael Haneke’s Caché unavoidable. Before the
Winter Chill is not nearly so oblique, nor so sinister, but it has a sleek tension to it that makes the skin crawl.
The principals’ luxurious life is detailed with a chilly precision that proves properly alienating and unnerving. Auteuil breaks up with conviction. KST autopilots her way through jealous ferment with expected efficiency.
Ultimately, the film is, however, morally and structurally unsatisfactory. The underdeveloped Lou is allowed to be little more than a road-bump impeding the posh characters steady progress, and a final ludicrous reveal drags us from high-end art cinema to the world of Midsomer Murders. Classy, for all that.
Kristin Scott Thomas: no one does jealous ferment like KST