Winter Boy – BFI Flare 2023

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Christophe Honoré

When 17-year-old Lucas and his father are driven off the road, Lucas sees it as a premonition that something worse will happen. It does: his father is killed when his car hits an oncoming truck. Winter Boy charts Lucas’s grief in forensic detail. His mourning unmoors him and the only escape routes he can see are the old ones: sex and religion.

In his first major acting role, Paul Kircher gives a compelling performance as Lucas, who is, at first, confused about how to grieve his father. When he returns to the family home from boarding school, he smiles too much at the awaiting relatives who have gathered there. A little later he is howling so loudly that someone injects a sedative into his arm. He doesn’t attend the funeral, choosing instead to stay home in a baggy jumper. His mother, played by the peerless Juliette Binoche, seems to his absence from the ceremony a good idea.

The next day he goes to Paris to stay with his brother and it is here, in the city, where the film really begins. Paris offers Lucas a greater freedom than he’s fully equipped to deal with. He can hook up with strangers that he meets on Grindr or visit churches and discuss the Resurrection with friendly priests. And also in Paris is Lilio, his brother’s flatmate and on whom Lucas develops a crush. It’s one of those encompassing intense teenage crushes when emotions are profound and sharp and one which we never experience later on in life. This crush makes Lucas do stupid things.

We know that in the end Lucas will be okay because he narrates the film from a position in the future, but what and where this place is remains unclear. He addresses his story to somebody in particular but whether this person is a policeman or a doctor or a psychiatrist or someone else entirely is not disclosed until the end. It’s certainly not the viewer.

We can only sit and watch Lucas’s downward spiral as he struggles to deal with his father’s death. Interestingly, the father is played by the film’s writer and director Christophe Honoré. Casting himself as the father is an almost meta-move in that the head of a family is like a film director choosing the right narrative for his actors/offspring. After the death of the father, Honoré must direct from afar but his influence is still palpable in the same way that Lucas’s father is still a keen presence in the film. In Paris, Lucas seems to forget his father in his pursuit of Lilio, but this love is only a sublimation for his loss.

There are also hints of Eric Rohmer in the scenes that show the characters driving from place to place or walking and running in the streets. Towards the end of the film Honoré also pays homage to the late great Jean-Luc Godard. The scene seems to be shot through a red filter reminiscent of Pierrot le Fou. But these tributes to the New Wave directors don’t seem gratuitous; they fit tightly in the film’s structure.

While Paul Kircher’s natural expressions and looseness make this film eminently watchable, the rest of the cast is also exceptional. There is a lovely scene where Lucas, his brother and his mother break out laughing in the middle of their mourning as they decide whether they can play OMD’s song Electricity at the funeral. Binoche’s brief respite from sadness feels very genuine and Vincent Lacoste as unpredictable brother Quentin is wonderfully understated. Indeed, Lacoste, who starred in Honoré’s previous and stagey film On A Magical Night, gives such weight to his character that you want to know where he goes when he leaves the apartment and what kind of art he makes. Erwan Kepoa Falé’s weary and worldly Lilio is just as intriguing.

Films about grieving are not unusual, but films about religion’s place in mourning are not so common. Winter Boy manages to broach both subjects and although Christianity is a theme that is hardly examined on screen, Honoré’s meditation on loss is extremely sure-footed.

Winter Boyis screening at BFI Flare Festival 2023 from 15 -26 March.

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