Frenchman Philippe Claudel has lately come under the extreme threat of creativity, coming off from a second-movie syndrome that’s common among emerging directors. His follow up to his sublime 2008 debut I’ve Loved You So Long is the lightweight and inconsequential Tous les soleil, a film that somehow dimmed the director’s spark. But to the French director’s credit, there are a few current filmmakers who have more interesting background to their careers than Claudel. Prior to his writing and directing gigs, he worked as a teacher in French prisons for eleven years, gaining the kind of first-hand experience that most writers and directors can only dream of.
At first glance, it looks like Claudel is attempting to follow the universal law of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” with his third feature Avant L’hiver (Before The Winter Chill), assembling a cast that include previous collaborator Kristin Scott Thomas for another slow-to-ignite drama concerning a French bourgeois family. Daniel Auteuil joins the fray, playing Scott Thomas’ husband, making a perfect fit for a well-intentioned, middle-aged man, bustling around his daily job as a tired surgeon with a monotony that screams impending mid-life crisis as loud as it can.
What makes this otherwise unremarkable premise so powerful are the impeccable performances, especially with the introduction of Leïla Bekhti as a temptingly interesting former patient, who at first appears to be stalking him. Auteuil is incredible, too – a true evocator of unsaid emotions. It helps that the actor can pull off the grumpy old sod type quite well like nobody else’s business. Full of suspicion, Claudel’s film is slow-moving, but it picks up a bit when the uncertain relationship between the surgeon and Bekhti starts to evolve. At first seemingly one-sided, a nervous friendship begins to evolve. Half platonic and half suggestive, it’s perfectly portrayed by the two actors. They show their characters’ vulnerability in such a way that this otherwise almost dull film is able to grow wings and soar. This is where the dynamics of the film shifts gears: although dealing with unoriginal themes, it shows us the nature of its characters’ empty lives and what they might turn to to fill them.
However, just when you’d expect Claudel to churn another perfectly wrought family drama, he takes an axe to the cutting room floor. Without spoiling the denouement, the gentle and languorous film suddenly morphs into a brutal thriller. The downside of it is that the film slightly suffers as though a besieged editor pieced two different films together. The explanation is not only implausible – it seems unnecessary. This could’ve been a wonderfully constructed drama about a man in the autumn of his life, but instead Claudel tries to be too clever, delineating aspects of his film that don’t need massive explanations. There’s a soothing ambiguity of the earlier portions of the film that feels far more effective and less patronising. As it is, it’s jarring and disturbing in a manner not expected from a film of this type. Perhaps this was Claudel’s intention – but if it was, I doubt it’s had the effect that he intended.