While I have tried my best to stay out of the way of any essays or reviews that might have distorted my take on this collection, I had heard that the final eponymous story was something special. I imagine there’s an art to the ordering of short story collections, maybe you start strong in order to grab the attention, hide the weaker stories in the middle, and end with fireworks in an effort to ensure that readers walk away from the book with a good impression of the author. Art as cognitive psychology… you always remember the first things and the final things but the stuff in the middle fades quite quickly. Last Night certainly started strongly only to become stuck in a rut of photocopied themes and stock characters, did Salter have it in him to go out with a bang? Well… yes.
I can certainly see why “Last Night” would stick in some reviewers’ memories; it seems considerably more accessible than a lot of the stories in the collection and while it too revisits those themes of middle-aged regret and sexual yearning, it does so in a style more reminiscent of O. Henry or Roald Dahl than James Salter. Much like “Give”, “Last Night” is ostensibly all about the twist in the tale while the really interesting stuff lies buried in sub-text and the details of character psychology. Like many of the best stories in this collection “Last Night” appears to be about one thing but is actually about another.
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One of the first films I reviewed when I started this blog was Philippe Claudel’s debut I Have Loved You So Long, a beautifully made but cynically constructed film that skilfully leads you up the garden path before taunting you for having the temerity to set foot in someone’s garden. Like many of the works I value most, I adore and hate I Have Loved You So Long in almost equal measure: I adore it because I admire its courageous choice of subject matter (a woman who murdered her own child) and the skill with which Claudel guides us into a very specific emotional state. I hate it because Claudel would rather get one over on his audience than use his skill to set them free with a fresh idea or perspective. I have reviewed hundreds of films in the years since I first saw I Have Loved You So Long and yet Claudel’s betrayal has always stayed with me… I am not an academic critic and I do not approach the culture I write about through a fixed ideology but one thing I believe is that great works encourage the audience to make their own choices and their own interpretations.
Given that I have something of a history with Claudel’s films, I jumped at the chance to write about his latest work Before the Winter Chill for FilmJuice.
Before the Winter Chill is one of those incredibly grown-up films that French cinema keeps quietly churning out while the English-speaking world gorges itself on films aimed at children. Set in contemporary France, the film revolves around an aging neurosurgeon (Daniel Auteuil) who has drifted through life without asking himself too many questions. As I explain in my review, the film is filled with pastoral images in which only his wife Lucie (Kristin Scott Thomas) is seen to be working. Indeed, the gap between the surgeon’s indolence and his wife’s incessant toil provides the pastoral setting (a vast modernist house with floor-to-ceiling windows that make the garden feel like part of the house) with its own emotional counter-force. Even as the film bends over backwards to establish the surgeon as an intelligent and sensitive man, it is abundantly clear that something has to give… there is too much unhappiness in every sour comment and petulant gaze. The shock to the system comes in the form of an attractive young woman who seems to be either in love with the surgeon, stalking him or quite possibly both. However, the film keeps the young woman’s motivations at arm’s length and encourages us to stretch our empathic muscles:
The film’s central mystery is a beautiful art student named Lou who seems to be very taken with Paul. Forced to assume Paul’s viewpoint, the audience is asked to keep guessing about Lou’s motivations; in one scene she is a young woman attracted to an older married man, then she is a stalker, next she is gravely disturbed and in need of help. All of these versions of Lou seem to exist in Paul’s head at the same time and his need to ‘solve’ the puzzle of Lou encourages him to spend time with her in a way that only serves to enrage his family and expose the tensions between them. While the film may begin by asking us to identify with Paul and ask why everyone is so grumpy, the film ends by asking us to identify with Lucie and ask: Why didn’t he put that much effort into making sense of the people who love him? Why did he open up to a peculiar stranger but keep everyone else at arm’s distance? How could he ask so much and give so little?
I have quite a strong critical read on this film but, unusually for me, I feel no great desire to share it with the world. As I explain in my review, Before the Winter Chill is one of those films that encourages speculation without providing sufficient clues as to why the various characters act in the way they do. People who are averse to spoilers want to preserve the sanctity of the plot, what concerns me is that by presenting you with a strong read, I would be denying you the pleasure of resolving the film’s ambiguities in your own unique way.
Part of what makes this film so satisfying is that it shows quite how far Claudel has developed as an artist. I Have Loved You So Long was an incredibly impressive debut but it was also intensely controlling as Claudel beat his audience over the head with very specific sets of emotions. Before the Winter Chill is no less skillfully made, Claudel’s use of music, acting and cinematography continue are still absolutely masterful. The difference is that today’s Claudel is comfortable with ambiguity and the audience’s right to resolve that ambiguity in a manner that works for them.