San Sebastian 2022 review: Winter Boy (Christophe Honoré)

“The intricate plotting of this powerful story becomes the foundation for this stunningly complex and achingly beautiful account of a young man’s journey towards self-acceptance in times of strife.”

Saying goodbye is never easy, especially to those with whom we have a very strong relationship. This is one of the many lessons that the protagonist of Winter Boy (Le Lycéen) learns after the death of his father, a death that launches him into an existential depression in which he begins to question everything he thought was true about his protected life. The most recent effort from Christophe Honoré is a poignant and harrowing account of a young man coming to terms with some very difficult realities after an enormous loss that causes the entire familial fabric he had taken for granted to fall into complete disarray. There is a forthright honesty to the film that we have often found embedded in the director’s previous works, and while he is looking at a few themes that have populated some of his other films, they feel just as invigorating and thought-provoking here. The intricate plotting of this powerful story becomes the foundation for this stunningly complex and achingly beautiful account of a young man’s journey towards self-acceptance in times of strife, and a memorable lesson in the unpredictable nature of life, with unsettling tragedies providing the opportunity for reflection and conversation.

Trauma is a universal theme in art – regardless of background, every culture deals with loss in some way, and we have seen countless remarkable works produced that look at the different ways people process tragedies. Honoré explores the subject through the eyes of a young man named Lucas, whose life as an adult has barely begun by the time his father dies (the specific circumstances around it are left ambiguous – like the protagonist, we never learn if his death was an accident or a suicide). This causes him to change his entire perception of where his future seemed to be heading. Most of Winter Boy takes place through Lucas’ painful recollections of the past, musings on the direct aftermath of his father’s death. This is his way of processing reality, working through the trauma that has suddenly descended on their entire family and forced them all into a position of not only renegotiating their relationship with one another, but also trying to make sense of their own emotions. These were clearly suppressed for far too long, as evidenced by their interactions revealing a deep sense of regret. Winter Boy offers an intimate portrait of grief and is not afraid to exemplify the lengthy challenges that can emerge in such situations, offering a heartwrenching but profound depiction of mourning and the methods we find to work through these difficult periods.

However, while it is a prominent theme and serves as the catalyst for most of the narrative, the death of the protagonist’s father is only a small part of the story, with the central focus being the aftermath, in which Lucas goes on a voyage of self-discovery as a result of trying to process the tragedy. Winter Boy focuses on more than just his grief, using it as the foundation for various experiences that would not have been possible had he not been compelled to depart from the comforts offered by his domestic life and confront the challenges he faces as a young gay man in the modern world. The film sees Lucas exploring his identity while working through the enormous change brought by his father’s death, and we see changes in how he interacts with his family and other characters that weave in and out of his life. The film is structured as a coming-of-age story, and it is the process of developing these ideas that makes it such a poignant psychological character study about a young man navigating the world and his shifting identity. Life is nothing but a series of difficult but vital lessons, and we witness Lucas undergoing several different kinds of education – emotional, sexual and psychological – all of which converge into a hauntingly beautiful account of his growing self-awareness and desire to break free of the past.

In bringing the character of Lucas to life, Honoré enlists Paul Kircher (the son of esteemed actors Irène Jacob and Jérôme Kircher) to play the part. This is an exceptional performance that indicates that Kircher has a very promising future within the industry, since his portrayal of this conflicted young man is truly spellbinding. He finds the balance between emotions, and never resorts to excess in the way that other relative newcomers would have done. This is even more noteworthy when we consider how Lucas is not a particularly likeable character – his behaviour is often selfish, and he clearly feels like he is above many of the other characters he encounters, which is the root of much of the tension that punctuates the film. Honoré and Kircher work laboriously to develop the character in a way that manages to be sympathetic to his plight without condoning or encouraging his behaviour, which helps establish the film’s perspective as being a fully realized portrait of a young man who is deeply flawed, but also still trying to find his footing in a world that he is barely equipped to survive without the sometimes-brutal lessons he learns along the way. Of the supporting ensemble, Vincent Lacoste and Juliette Binoche are most notable, taking on the parts of Lucas’ brother and mother respectively, and while their roles are relatively small in comparison they make a profound impression, contributing to the deeply human tapestry Honoré is weaving.

Death is a subject that cinema has always embraced, since it is the only true inevitability and thus allows for a wide range of perspectives and a countless number of potential stories. Winter Boy joins this canon of profoundly moving films that looks at the concept of grief as both the end of a life and the start of another, albeit in a more abstract sense. Death offers an opportunity for change amongst those that are left behind, a chance to re-evaluate our choices and determine the direction in which we intend our lives to move. Using the character of Lucas as the audience surrogate, the director goes in search of answers to questions that many of us may ask over time, but may rarely get a solid answer. The film looks at themes such as identity and family, focusing on how a tragedy can put us in a position where our entire perception shifts, and that it can sometimes bring individuals closer together, teaching them valuable lessons that they had not previously encountered. It is a difficult film in terms of both the subject matter and the often arid, aloof tone, but it is clear that compassion sometimes entails having difficult conversations that are delivered directly, since the truth is not something that needs to be palliated. Especially since it becomes increasingly obvious that time heals all wounds if we are willing to have the challenging discussions evoked throughout this film.