Every year, a movie comes along that seems to be speak directly to me, putting definition into my thoughts and feelings in a way often difficult to describe. This year, French TIFF drama Winter Boy is that film. Channeling the angst of one’s rebellious teen phase intermingled with the fresh, indescribable grief of losing a parent, Winter Boy peels back the layers of vulnerability to expose the nakedness underneath. A feeling of aimlessness and losing hope on life itself in the wake of this egregious loss is not one completely foreign to me. At times, Winter Boy hit me so hard emotionally that I could feel the tears streaming down my face. It became impossible to reconcile the experiences of seventeen-year-old Lucas (Paul Kircher) with those of my own. Queer writer/director Christophe Honoré simply must be writing what he knows—the rawness of this story hits hard.
Throughout the film, a narration from Lucas constantly keeps up in his headspace, and provides heartbreaking insight. Adding this feature gives the film a book-like quality at times that I very much felt suited the material perfectly. We frequently cut back to Lucas in the present day, staring directly into the camera in loving close-up; Honoré sporadically revisits Lucas in almost a confessional-style, but we wisely never see specifically who he is talking with. Only one time in the film is this tradition broken, and it is done so in a completely organic way that helps to drive home the larger themes of the narrative.
Two weeks ago, his life changed forever, and now Lucas is telling us his story. Sound asleep in his dorm, Lucas is awoken in the middle of the night by his neighbor back home and his brother, who is completely silent. Urged to come with them, but given no information beyond his father (Honoré) being in the hospital after a car accident, Lucas jumps to every worst case scenario on his way back home. Receiving a call that a person dear to one’s heart is injured is typically the worst feeling, so having the unknowns hanging in the air through a full car ride just seems excruciating. When they arrive, Lucas point blank asks his brother Quentin (Vincent Lacoste, Lost Illusions) if their father is dead. Quentin immediately breaks down with the news, telling Lucas all he needs to know.
Afterward, Lucas is forced to go inside their home, where both sides of the massive family tree have gathered in mourning. Lucas greets them each with a fake smile and a warmness despite the circumstances. Even when Lucas embraces his grief-stricken mother (Juliette Binoche, 2014’s Godzilla, Chocolat), he still feels a certain, very relatable kind of numbness. His car rammed into a truck going the opposite way and he died instantly, mother tells Lucas of his father’s accident. Hearing the gruesome details doesn’t make it any easier for Lucas to digest. With the family still there, Lucas goes up to his room, screams into his pillow, and freaks out, thrashing wildly. I could really feel his emotions in this scene, and it totally broke my heart. Paul Kircher delivers a powerhouse performance throughout Winter Boy—this sequence in particular allows him to tap into a dark avenue.
Lucas turns to his boyfriend, Oscar, in comfort, who offers for Lucas to sleep over later that night. Lucas is sure to insist what they have is not love. Later that day, Quentin gives Lucas terrible advice. He says they will survive without their father, and to just keep occupied “until it passes.” As someone who has firsthand experience, I can tell you that the feeling never truly dissipates. The loss of a loved one, especially a parent, will always feel like an empty pit, and grief is not a straight line. Some days, a pang of sadness will bring it on—a thought or memory will form a smile followed by deep sorrow, or a favorite song or movie will play that recalls the impeccable taste of the deceased. Advising someone to just “keep busy” until the feeling goes away is a tragically misguided concept.
After a brief fight in which Lucas calls into question Quentin’s actual priorities in regards to his family, Lucas leaves to get high and make love with Oscar one final time. Tomorrow, he departs for Paris to stay with Quentin for a week. Lucas steels himself, vowing to live alone and willing to sacrifice love forever. How can he open up and be vulnerable to others when life has lost its meaning? How can he let an unspeakable tragedy claim another he is close with? Lucas becomes convinced that his father was deeply ashamed his son was “a fag,” but Quentin maintains that he “loved you completely.” Paris isn’t all dreamy and picturesque either—Quentin spends much of the time engrossed in his work life while pointing Lucas in the direction of a famous museum or two, or giving him sparse funds to find lunch in Paris.
During the time Lucas spends away, Winter Boy establishes Lucas as flawed, but how can a teenager not be flawed? He becomes transfixed on Quentin’s older, artistic roommate, Lilio (Wilfried Capet). Lucas experiences his first ever no-strings-attached gay hookup, and wanders around Paris searching for his own place in the world. Lilio becomes a new purpose for Lucas, a game to play to see how far he can take things. What is the truth about life? Lucas thought he would experience a transformative kind of awakening with the loss of his father, but it only makes the “nothingness” of life seem that much bolder.
Stylistic choices made—like juxtaposing a queer encounter against a church visit—prove Christophe Honoré’s sense of humor remains intact amongst the heaviness of his screenplay. Acting performances from the entire ensemble are terrific, but Paul Kircher in particular really wowed me. The film should notably carry a trigger warning, as at one point there is a graphic depiction of a suicide attempt that is hard to watch even as someone who has never thought about ending their life. However, for tackling a topic like death so head-on, Winter Boy ends in a surprisingly hopeful and beautiful way. We may never have the answers to what awaits us after life; certainly, every subculture and religion in the universe seems to have differing opinions on the meaning of it. I think the beauty lies in the unknown—we carry the imprint of the ones we love with us forever. If making it through the day might be a struggle, we can take comfort in knowing the ones we love are burrowed deep within our hearts, where no time or mark can ever wither them away.
Winter Boy screened at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival.