Reviews for Philippe Claudel’s slow-burning psychological drama have been mixed at best, many critics seemingly being unable to overlook the conceptual similarities it bears to Michael Haneke’s Cache of 2005. It’s true that the films share a star in Daniel Auteuil and both are premised on the delivery of anonymous and increasingly sinister gifts to bourgeoisie families in contemporary France. Cache’s stream of surveillance tapes is used to bring its audience’s perceptions into doubt whilst simultaneously dredging up the dark secrets of George’s past; the roses which Paul receives in Winter Chill serve a similar purpose: familial ties, which at the film’s outset appear nigh unbreakable, are soon subject to stress as both secrets and diminishing trust drive a wedge between Paul and his family.
The similarities to Haneke’s film, however, are largely superficial. Where Cache focuses largely on the traumatic ramifications of a past misdeed inflected by a postcolonial awareness, Winter Chill is considerably more character oriented. Rather than use the unwanted gifts as a vehicle for a political agenda, Claudel uses the strengthening relationship between Paul and the young woman, the latter claiming to be a previous patient, to force to the surface all the festering and unspoken truths which underpin the relationships within the surgeon’s family. Examined first and foremost is that of Paul with his wife Lucie (Kristen Scott Thomas), whose marriage is quite evidently drifting towards the titular winter chill. While Paul works long hours at the hospital, Lucie cultivates their home’s beautiful garden, minds her infant granddaughter, prepares meals for her largely absent husband and tries to support her mentally ill sister. It quickly becomes clear that the lack of communication between the two is not so much a companionable silence but the result of a growing distance borne of Paul’s considerable daily absences.
Although Tim Robey’s review for The Telegraph was a rather disdainful response to the visual metaphors employed by the film, namely the use of Lucie’s garden as a reflection of the state of her marriage, the beauty of the autumnal foliage is not only pleasing to the eye but a carefully considered note in the bouquet of character, sound, and image. Similarly, where the temptation exists to erect glaring emotional signposts in the film’s score, Claudel largely restricts himself to a few diegetic operatic extracts with the occasional lapse into a bittersweet soundtrack of woodwind instruments. Despite this romantic refrain, the mood and atmosphere of Winter Chill are dictated by its perambulating pace and the stillness of its shots; takes are long and compositions are carefully framed, much use is made of windows to create frames within frames, suggesting the transparent barriers which are raised between the film’s characters.
As Lucie and Paul drift apart, Paul and Lou (Leïla Bekhti) grow ever closer, the distanced impartiality that the surgeon has developed over his presumably lengthy and stress-filled career slowly falling away as he becomes enchanted by the young woman. Though this affair is easily viewed simply as a betrayal of his loving wife, it is in fact both catharsis and catalyst for Paul and his family, forcing them to address issues long kept secret whilst also re-humanising the surgeon. Ambiguous as the ending may seem, the lyrics of the song which is played over the closing credits yield some interesting implications. Where Cache is an exercise in tension and a reminder of an ugly past, Winter Chill is an engaging character driven mood piece which has suffered unfairly by comparison.