Natalia (Marie Matheron) is heavily pregnant to her boyfriend of six years, Stéphane (Michel Feller). He has grown distant and disinterested – in both his girlfriend and his child – and is more focused on an affair with the intense and unstable Sabine (Clothilde de Bayser). Sabine in turn has grown obsessed with the actor Bruno (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey), the star of the play for which she is production designer. Sooner or later, however, Bruno must choose between Sabine and his existing partner Maryse.
If you wanted to find the most egregious assembly of French drama stereotypes imaginable, then Winter’s Child is the film for you. The second feature by director Olivier Assayas, following his 1986 debut Disorder, is a significantly weaker piece. It wallows in worn-out cliches – each weirdly exaggerated to a tedious extreme – and fails to properly surprise an audience, or indeed engage with them at all. In total Winter’s Child feels like a parody of what people might think French cinema is like.
Winter’s Child comes from that mythical France where everyone has a lover, and everyone also has the time to have a job, a partner, and an ongoing sexual dalliance all on a day-to-basis. Everyone engages in deep, portentous conversations while languidly smoking cigarettes. All of the men are dour and serious – except when passionately rough-handling their lovers – and all of the women are sensitive, emotionally unstable messes. Jilted lovers break into their ex’s house not once but twice in one film. There are suicide attempts, and threats of suicide, and at least one crime of passion. Characters are positioned to be sympathetic, yet all but one seem to be unforgivably terrible people.
The chain of competing lovers in fundamentally ridiculous, as are some of their behaviours. Without an ability to legitimately buy into the characters’ lives, audiences will likely to take a second of the narrative seriously. It also drags terribly, with an 84-minute run-time feeling like close to two hours. Assayas shoots the film very well, continuing with Disorder‘s grainy texture and moody lighting and developing some stunning camera angles and moments. It only amounts, however, to painting over a house of rotten wood. At the screenplay level the film is unworkable; no amount of direction and acting can save it.
This is a deep pity, because there are some sensational performances among the cast, all of whom do their best with what they have. Michel Feller is a particular stand-out, playing out Stéphane’s appalling behaviour in a manner that is at least understandable if not likeable. His looks and mannerisms are strongly reminiscent of American actor Harrison Ford at a similar age. It is a portrayal that definitely works. Marie Matheron benefits from a much more sensible and clear character arc as Natalia than Clothilde de Bayser is saddled with as Sabine. As a result she becomes the film’s most sympathetic figure, and is not saddled with the kind of unbelievable behaviours forced upon her co-star.
Of interest I suspect to Assayas die-hards only, Winter’s Child is a crushing disappointment. Thankfully its predecessor Disorder is of greater artistic value; both are available together as a re-mastered bluray set from the UK’s Arrow Video.