It’s difficult not to think of Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005) in the opening stages of Philippe Claudel’s third film, Before the Winter Chill (2013). The last time Daniel Auteuil played a middle-class husband receiving unwanted deliveries from an unknown sender, the stakes were high in the Austrian’s superlative thriller. Whilst those trappings are evident again, the mysteries of Claudel’s offering appear to be of the human heart and soul. Reuniting the director with Kristin Scott Thomas, the star of lauded debut I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), this relationship drama isn’t keen to give them up. It all makes for unusual viewing that proves engrossing despite refusing to offer answers, easy or otherwise.
From the moment that Auteuil’s well-to-do consultant Paul bumps into ex-patient, Lou (Leïla Bekhti), in a café one day and brushes her off, events transpire by way of pregnant pauses and veiled motivations. Andrew Dziedzuk’s score avoids emotional manipulation whilst the camera of Denis Lenoir coolly keeps its distance. Claudel and his crew are not interested in obvious cues, but encouraging the audience to interpret the story elegantly unfolding before their eyes. All three of the lead actors turn in strong, but undeniably reserved, performances as their characters pent up feelings remain as ambiguous to us as each other. After their initial encounter, Paul’s home and office are inundated with flowers that he presumes to be from Lou – especially when she appears at his surgery and the opera.
Eventually, the two begin to meet secretly unsurprisingly raising the suspicions of Lucie (Scott Thomas) Paul’s wife. They seem to have long been quietly circling each other in their spacious home unable to communicate in any meaningful way. All of the aforementioned makes this film a difficult one to gauge. Ambiguity can often be dismissed as pretension, and directors that portray detachment and isolation by replicating them in their style and aesthetic risk alienating audiences. Somehow, Claudel’s latest manages to walk those particular knife edges without quite slipping off. The drama remains intensely absorbing throughout, and although things do not quite coalesce as one may hope in the finale, it also does not leave a sense of dissatisfaction when the credits roll. If anything, Before the Winter Chill might inspire a desire to revisit its enigmatic rhythms and would undoubtedly reward repeat inspection for those inclined to do so.