Int’l Critics Line: Christophe Honore’s ‘Winter Boy’

Int’l Critics Line: Christophe Honore’s ‘Winter Boy’

Grief is a wild animal: nobody knows what it will do next. In Christophe Honoré’s Winter Boy (Le Lycéen), high-school student Lucas (Paul Kircher) is asleep in his dorm when his older brother Quentin (Vincent Lacoste) and a family friend burst in. His father has had an accident. By the time they reach their small town in the foothills of the French Alps, Lucas has realized his father is dead.

Relatives mill around the house, greeting and eating. Lucas’ mother Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) descends the stairs; clearly, she is only just holding back hysteria. Lucas can’t hold anything back. First he is numbed, mechanically asking after the visitors’ health. Then he goes to his room, thrashes on his bed and howls like a banshee. He’s only 17. His grief is going to fill the house. It may fill the world. He tries to think about his mother, but he hasn’t really got room for thinking. His grief is everything.

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Honoré has had something of a shifting identity as a director in the past, working in different modes and voices, but he positions himself here as heir to the aesthetic and attitudes of the French New Wave. He has made no bones about the fact that this is a version of his own story. He plays the father himself in a couple of early scenes, gently warning his son to concentrate on his studies. He wishes he had. Maybe then he would have a better life now. Later this wistful reflection heaves into prominence in Lucas’s mind. Did his father kill himself?

He thoughtlessly puts this to his mother, who reacts with an explosion of furious agony. Binoche is raw, manic, maternal, real. She can sell pure feeling like nobody else. When his brother tries to defuse the hothouse atmosphere at home by taking Lucas to Paris for a week, Lucas throws himself into casual sex. Sex with hook-ups, attempts to have sex with his brother’s avuncular flatmate Lilio (Erwan Kepoa Falé), sex with rough men who will pay for it. Quentin, in one of his eruptions of fury, throws him out. His own grief is driving him to work around the clock. He isn’t a babysitter. 

Honoré works with a sort of narrative uncertainty principle. His account of the family’s tumult sweeps like windscreen wipers from the endless wake to Lucas’ risky sex life, back to the brothers’ scrapping and back again to Lucas’ increasing confusion, continually spreading out and then peeling back the surface of their lives. The camera stays close to them, rarely pulling back further than the opposite wall of a small room. The psychiatric hospital where Lucas is eventually confined, lined with airy cloisters, is paradoxically one of the few spaces in the film that feels open and free. 

The characters lurch back and forth in the same way; Isabelle is convulsed one moment, then consumed with the need to look after her cubs the next, while Kircher’s Lucas is emotionally everywhere.  He will give up school and look after his mother; he will detach himself from everything and live alone; he will continue his education in a different town; he will give up speaking altogether, like a Trappist monk. Newcomer Kircher’s open, guileless face is a gift, reminding us that even when Lucas is at his most brazenly debauched, he is really just a kid. He could go in any direction. Kircher shared the Best Leading Performance Silver Shell at the San Sebastián Film Festival for his role. The film reaches a conclusion that is satisfying but open-ended. You can’t help but wonder what Lucas did next.

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