Dir: Caroline Link. Germany. 2008. 128 mins.
Caroline Link’s first film in seven years is an elegantly-woven portrait of a family in crisis after the suicide of an 18 year-old boy and the steps which occur on their way to healing. Never overly gloomy or downbeat, A Year Ago In Winter is nevertheless a contemplative piece which doesn’t provide easy answers for its characters’ dilemmas.
Unapologetically unhurried in its narrative, the film addresses subjects in addition to grief, such as the restorative power of art and different notions of sexual desire. It is an intelligent human drama going out in a tough market for such fare, Link’s name - she won the Oscar in 2002 for Nowhere In Africa - and the growing fame of young lead actress Karoline Herfurth will help marketing efforts. Limited arthouse theatrical sales should be forthcoming after its Toronto Film Festival world premiere; Germany - where it will be released through Constantin on Nov 13 - will no doubt be its most successful territory.
As she demonstrated in Beyond Silence and Nowhere In Africa, Link’s preoccupations are with people thrust into extraordinary situations. A Year Ago In Winter is no different. It begins with a prologue in which a young man listens to his iPod with eyes closed while dancing in the snow, unaware that his sister is watching him from inside and his mother is filming him. In the next scene his mother is jogging when she hears the gunshot that kills him.
The drama begins in earnest a year later as the mother Elaine Richter (a wonderfully repressed Harlouch) arrives at the rural studio of portrait painter Max Hollander (Bierbichler) to commission a portrait of her two children. She explains that Alexander (Cyril Sjostrom, seen in flashbacks) died in a shooting accident a year ago in winter [we discover that it was a suicide a couple of scenes later] and that he will have to work on his face from home movies and photographs. Her daughter Lilli (Herfurth) will come to visit Hollander and sit for him.
So begins the central stretch of the film, as Lilli, a beautiful and talented ballerina, develops a friendship with the much older man Hollander which will help her to deal with her confusion and need for human connection. Link follows both Lilli and Hollander together and separately - as she neglects her dancing and engages in an unhealthy relationship with an artist (Misel Maticevic), and as he struggles with his sexual feelings for men and his strained relationship with his son.
Nothing is spelled out here. There is a sexual attraction between Lilli and Max, but it is never acted on although it offers Max a heterosexual reawakening after his unexpected attraction to a man. Lilli searches for answers to Alexander’s suicide but never arrives at any conclusion. Her parents come to their own inevitable parting of ways. But Link is not interested in reaching conclusions, so much as studying the motivations that drive the characters to their behaviour and onto a path of recovery.
She is assisted greatly by her cast. Herfurth (Perfume, The Reader) has a strikingly ethereal beauty and plays Lilli with the contradictions and tormented temperament required while Bierbichler is an effectively wounded presence as the man who finds himself reinvigorated by his young subject.
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based on the novel The Aftermath by Scott Campbell