Avant L’hiver (directed by Philippe Claudel) could be said to follow that classically French film tradition of domestic dramas set amongst the intelligentsia…a sort of bourgeois angst. The domestic environment is usually fabulous – a Parisian apartment; a country retreat; a suburban architectural ideal. The women are beautiful; the men are middle-aged and paunchy, successful, rich and often libidinous. The pace is slow and the script is usually minimalist, peppered with meaningful stares and shots of designer kitchens.
Don’t get me wrong; I love these films. I honed my cinematic senses as a teen watching European films on BBC2. They were a welcome addition to my increasing experience of cinema as an art form. Avant L’hiver fits nicely into this canon of french domestic dramas, but with an addition that I found disturbing.
The plot is predicable enough: rich, successful, paunchy middle-aged man is married to beautiful, decorative woman in suburban modernist pile. Calm and order is threatened when man meets young woman who then appears to stalk him. Crisis ensues. Lots of meaningful stares and vague bourgeois navel-gazing. Young woman neatly exits plot and calm and order is restored. Or so we think.
External threat to the ideals of middle-class home life in the shape of beautiful young women are nothing new. Woman as siren and signifier of danger and threat is a classic trope in all art forms. Within film, it a genre in itself – think of Fatal Attraction as probably the most crude and obvious of its type. However, as the potential interloper, Lou, is a woman of Moroccan heritage, and it is this racial dimension that I found disconcerting.
In Avant L’hiver Paul (played by Daniel Auteuil) is a successful neuro-surgeon, revered by his female colleagues and female patients alike. He lives in a starkly beautiful minimalist house with his British wife of 30 years, Lucie (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas). They have a grown son and a baby grandchild. At one point, Lucie mentions that she has given up her career to assist Paul’s success, although we never learn what that career was. Their life is ordered and centres around Paul’s work. Lucie tends her garden and waits for and on her husband. She is concerned with plants, he is concerned with brains. She is the corporeal to his cerebral. When Paul is not working, he and Lucie visit galleries and music recitals and enjoy the last family dinners in the garden before autumn comes.
One day, Paul enters a cafe and is waited on by Lou (played by Leïla Bekhti). We are immediately struck by her youth, beauty and sexuality. Her shirt has slipped from her shoulder to reveal a patch of brown skin . She seems to smoulder, in contrast to the brittle, sterile perfection of Lucie. She is fire to Lucie’s earth; heat to Lucie’s coolness. As well as being the antithesis to Lucie, Lou is the embodiment of ‘exotic otherness’…her dark beauty suggests sexual availability (‘don’t you want to fuck me?’) but also danger and chaos. Lou’s world is that of domestic discord, emotional incontinence, duplicity, violence and prostitution. Her appearances are unexpected, unpredictable. Her apartment, in stark contrast to the grey minimalism of Paul and Lucie’s home, is noisy, messy and carries the threat of impending violence from warring neighbours. The blood red of the flowers she anonymously sends to Paul seem to overwhelm the muted palate of Paul’s life, mocking the bloodlessness of his relationship with Lucie.
Despite Lou’s offer of sex, Paul takes a paternal interest in her, although it is clear he is mesmerised by her and, against his better judgement, actively seeks her out. Lou is cast as a siren, luring him, we find out later, to what she intends to be a violent death. Film Noir as a genre is full of such women, their beauty and sexual desirability used to dupe and ensnare unsuspecting men. And they are invariably violently punished for their transgressions.
Order is restored and threat abated when Lou spares Paul and kills herself instead. She is found in her bath, the blood from her wrists echoing the red of the roses. Paul is required to identify her body. Visibly shaken, he is told by the police that Lou was not who she seemed. Her whole life as she told it to him was a lie, meant to trick him into trusting her so that she and a partner in crime could then extort money from him and kill him. Even her European-sounding name was false, her real one being decidedly Arabic. Paul takes a momento of her, a cassette tape of Moroccan music.
Winter is over and we see Paul once again eating dinner in the garden with friends and family. Lucie speaks of their difficult time, confident the episode is finished and life with Paul is back to normal. She follows Paul into the house and finds him listening to a tape of Lou singing a Moroccan song. The song of the siren. Even in death the lure of Lou is evident.
Given the racial tensions in France and the rise of extremist right-wing politics, I don’t think it is far-fetched to see a sub-plot in Avant L’hiver.The character of Lou as a woman of Arab ethnicity is not accidental. She represents the perceived threat to white, middle-class life of multi-culturalism; despite the liberalism of the middle class, it’s high gates (like those protecting Paul and Lucie’s life) are closed to anything that threatens the hegemony. The danger is ‘out there’ and it is ‘foreign’. Despite the appearance of integration and Westernisation embodied in Lou’s character, we are reminded that underneath lurks real danger and the exotic appeal of ethnic ‘otherness’ does little to compensate for this danger. It permeates white culture, it brings chaos and ultimately death. Is Avant L’hiver racist? No, I wouldn’t go that far but I think it portrays a while middle-class afraid of what it perceives to be the potentially devastating effect of multi-culturalism. The final scene shows Lucie seeing the expression on Paul’s face as he listens to Lou’s song. There is no freedom from fear. Lucie knows this.