Christophe Honoré's Winter Boy is now showing exclusively on MUBI starting April 28, 2023, in many countries in the series Luminaries.
When Antoine Doinel first dons his checkered jacket and roams the streets of Paris in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), the city air is so cold that his breath clouds the frame. Truffaut’s wintry film is a tale of isolation and frustration in the life of the young Doinel, a misbehaving schoolboy bored by la dictée and the stifling teachings of his professor. Out in the frostbitten night, he sleeps in a printing press and steals a typewriter, evoking his search for his own liberation and words to live by. To everyone else, he appears a troubled youth in need of institutionalization. To Truffaut, he is his younger self looking for his identity and the means to express it, a memory committed to film.
When a filmmaker sets out to document this period—whether through fiction or fictionalized autobiography, a re-living of formative experiences through film—they grasp for a mode of articulation. The feelings or temptations that were once so difficult to explain can be verbalized through the medium of cinema and, perhaps, cathartically released. They might provide the language sought by distant viewers, too. The French filmmaker Christophe Honoré seems attuned to this in his own winter’s tale of a struggling adolescent, Winter Boy, partially based on his memories of his own father’s death. The film depicts a season in the life of the teenage Lucas (Paul Kircher) who loses his dad (briefly played by Honoré himself) to a car crash. To cope with his grief, his mother (Juliette Binoche) suggests he join his brother Quentin (Vincent Lacoste) in Paris, where the freedom of the city and new experiences beckon. And so, in a jacket remarkably similar to Doinel’s, Lucas pulls up his collar and steps out into the cold.
The similarities to The 400 Blows are only fleeting, but Winter Boy marks a new step along a lineage of autobiographical, coming-of-age French cinema, particularly films that center on male youth. While Truffaut’s film is certainly not the only portrait of male youth within this canon, many French films that have garnered arthouse reverence tend to look at female experiences. Many classics of the genre concern young women and their burgeoning adolescence; the likes of Peppermint Soda (1977), La boum (1980), À Nos Amours (1983), Fat Girl (2001), Girlhood (2014), and several works by Eric Rohmer, Agnès Varda, or Claire Denis come to mind. In recent years, films that explore formative queer male relationships, such as François Ozon’s Summer of 85 or Luca Guadagnino’s French coproduction Call Me By Your Name, have also come to the fore. Winter Boy is part of this contemporary movement while also drawing on the resonance of older works.
Through his film’s title and setting, however, Honoré perhaps also hopes to counteract some of the genre’s clichés. Many of the above films take place over hedonistic summers in the city or in more pastoral climes, as do earlier examples of filmmakers’ personal stories, such as Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses (1974). Malle and Eustache both feature young teenage boys on the cusp of puberty as protagonists and examine their sexual frustrations, friendship dynamics, and the rites of passage they undergo. Both are, at least in part, autobiographical works—Malle was always clear that the controversial scene of incest between main character Daniel and his mother at the end of the film was entirely fictional. In these narratives, childhood has a more idealized quality; kids while away the summer, kissing in fields and lounging around bucolic French villages in Eustache’s film, or steal jazz records, smoke cigarettes, and frolic on tennis courts à la Malle. It may induce eye rolls whenever there is a suggestion of teenage angst here, but angst there is all the same. It is often emotional and carnal; many films frame the anxiety around sexual encounters as the zenith of experience for their characters, for whom it is the key to leaving childhood behind. Filmmakers know their past desires or unrequited loves were once serious, yet perhaps can now see that they were not entirely grave. As such, their films maintain a knowing sense of distance from their subjects, which enables them to appraise their own experiences more holistically. The use of light comedy and the breezy summer settings in Malle and Eustache’s films give their stories a fleeting quality, a hint of nostalgia rather than lasting sentimentality.
There is a greater gravitas, and coldness, to Winter Boy, where similarly insular turmoil meets explicit tragedy. The director’s own mark on the film is interesting to consider given that Winter Boy is not a period film, unlike other examples from the genre (including Honoré’s own semi-autobiographical film from 2018, Sorry Angel). The decision to position the narrative as contemporary, rather than recreate the era of the filmmaker’s adolescence, imposes a distance between Honoré and Lucas, yet somewhat paradoxically makes the film feel more personal. The soundtrack choices, from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to Robert Palmer, feel less like an attempt to provoke collective recollection of a time and place than to sensitively conjure Honoré’s own memories. As such, Winter Boy seems to ignore nostalgia and sentimentality in favor of a moodier, more introspective mode, a collision between Lucas's youthful potential and Honoré's reflections on grief. Although the city, for starry-eyed Lucas, is alive with possibility, his revelatory experiences of youth are balanced by a very genuine sadness.
Lucas describes his life following his father’s death as a “wild animal”; he’s volatile and greedy for any kind of experience, but he has to learn to tame the beast in the process. Paris proves the perfect site for his self-discovery, anchored by his sexual freedom. Having left his regular hookup behind at home, and forced out of his brother’s Paris apartment during working hours, Lucas seeks out flings and enjoys the spontaneity of new encounters; this allows him to explore who he is becoming and take control over something in his life. While Lucas doesn’t question his sexuality, he joins characters like Elio, or Adèle in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), who are irrevocably changed by pivotal (and doomed) queer relationships in their youth. He harbors a crush on Quentin’s roommate, Lilio (Erwan Kepoa Falé), who, of course, could never reciprocate. Here, Lucas realizes that his hedonism and his desperation for maturity can’t outrun his emotions; Lilio’s rejection, compounded by his mounting grief, is too much to handle.
Lucas’s subsequent breakdown marks a turning point in the film which, similarly to The 400 Blows, finds the protagonist institutionalized; for Doinel, it’s a juvenile correctional center, and for Lucas, a psychiatric unit, but both are introduced to therapy and sheltered from the city lives they once knew. Honoré peppers the film with direct-to-camera monologues from Lucas to frame his interiority prior to his hospital stay, during which Lucas refrains from speaking at all. Conversely, the correctional center is the one place Doinel seems to have the chance to talk—his therapy sessions are not dissimilar to Lucas’s monologues, a space for that longed-for articulation. Lucas, having been overwhelmed by experience, now retreats in order to concentrate on exactly what he wants to say when he’s ready. Winter Boy is a film fraught with sadness and loss, but there is life, too; a pink tone in the color palette softens and warms the darker themes, a choice which feels less like a textural manifestation of a rose-tinted view than a way to add fondness to formative memories. It suggests Honoré’s own articulation of that time alongside his onscreen counterpart’s search for clarity.
Whereas Doinel’s story lingers in ambiguity, Honoré finds cathartic resolution in Lucas’s recovery and eventual return to voice. When he speaks again, it is through songwriting, a nod to Lilio’s talent he so admired in Paris. Music emboldens Lucas to navigate the deep trauma of losing a parent in adolescence with grace. The seasonal title (at least, for the English translation) feels particularly apt for Honoré’s film, and acts as a broader metaphor for the genre itself: a phrase like Winter Boy conveys the sense that time will pass, that life is an evolving force, which can be key to a young person’s endurance in difficult times. Embedded within these ephemeral portraits of youth, and implied by the film at hand, is the knowledge of that eventual survival; they are a reflection on past selves from the vantage point of present-day security. Still, those summers of love or winters of discontent, their fleeting terror, scar the memory. Their revival onscreen, and the collective impulse over time to share such stories, goes some way, perhaps, to soothe the pain.