I spent a rare sunny spring afternoon confined in the dark with a friend at the Cine Lumière. Despite the generous legroom and comfortable seats, and the frothy latte in my hand, our chilled mood took a sharp left turn onto Dread Street five minutes into the film.
Daniel Auteil, who plays the part of a very successful neurosurgeon, is married to the lovely Lucie, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, in the latest French release, Avant l’Hiver, Before the Winter Chill.
From the outside, all appears idyllic: the couple, their family, their magazine-spread home and prize-wining gardens she so lovingly tends to, day in and day out. (Okay, so a little too much gardening and not enough socialising outside the house…) All said and done, the couple’s home is an architectural feast; look as hard as you wish, but you will not catch so much as a streak on its many massive glass walls.
As the viewer, you and I get to stroll inside their exquisite home and admire everything about it, down to the Eames chair and appealing array of art, lamps and curio objects. His offices are equally easy on the eye - until a self-appointed ‘decorator’ of sorts proceeds to mar all the beauty and goodness of the visual canvas, petal by petal, stinking of a Shebug’s cloying odor.
Her name? Lou Vallé. Or so she tells him one afternoon when she chats up the respectable doctors in a café before he heads home after a long day of operating. She tells him that she remembers his removing her appendix as a child and has remained forever grateful to his tender care – the first of her cascading lies.
The neurosurgeon immediately corrects the too young and too chatty barmaid explaining that she must have him confused with another physician. But Lou insists on being right and casts her calculating murky eyes at him over her exposed shoulder.
A nonstop delivery of blood-red roses kicks off the very next day. He finds her calling card on his windscreen, in a vase at his reception, fanned about in his very office and being sent his own home… Does the shebug own up to being the culprit? That’ll be the day…
Meanwhile, Lucie’s perfectly arched right eyebrow hikes up to a 90° angle. Only because she is English-born is she able to maintain her commendable calm. She is respectable, caring, intelligent, elegant and very much a lady.
The Shebug’s persistent Mephistophelian machinations serve her well: soon unspoken heaviness and loose ends between the doctor and his wife shoot up like cracks on the surface of a frozen lake.
The doctor is a good man; you cannot help but like him. But watching an honourable, intelligent grandfather become entangled in a hooker’s dark web is not for the weak of heart.
The tale is twisted, chilly and downright unnerving. But we cannot shake him out of the Shebug’s carefully conceived bewitchment no matter how much our hands itch to. Equally, we cannot urge the enviably controlled Lucie to grab hold of the reins soon enough. We sat helplessly awaiting for zee Jaques-in-the-Box to pop out in her true sordid colours before more damage occurs.
But typical to French cinema style, the truth of Lou Valle’s motives drop onto the unraveling scene one drop at a time. Though the danger finally seems to have been averted, does it really?
As the lights in the Lumière brightened and the curtains closed, my polyglot friend and I exited le cinéma agreeing on two things:
1) There is no fool like an old fool;
2) I get to pick the French films for the remainder of the year!