Winter’s Waltz (Joseph Morel, 2020) – Review

You can see the film here –

As some of you may remember, I reviewed another film directed by Joseph Morel last year – A Portrait (You can find that review here – That was a film that I really got behind because of the very distinct style of storytelling, with the fourth wall breaks and the study of a character that the film dares us to keep watching even as we want to take our eyes away. Showing a seriously impressive level of versatility, Winter’s Waltz departs massively from the discomfort and quiet thrills of A Portrait and instead views the world through a much more intimate and melodramatic lens. (To clarify, melodramatic is most definitely a compliment coming from me! Not the dirty word that it seems to be for many.)

Working again as a character study, Winter’s Waltz focuses on Frank (played by Stephen Schreiber, who does a great job of communicating the emotions of his character through extremely minute and simple gestures, aided by Callum Mills’ excellent cinematography), an old man who is struck brutally by the loss of his wife. The film’s framing is gorgeous throughout, clearly taking some inspiration from the later work of Terrence Malick in and channelling that inspiration into the world full of emotional contrasts that is created by Morel. The ability of the film to slither from emotion to emotion is genuinely impressive and is very rarely jarring, surprising considering how often it goes from feelings of bitterness to beauty to depression. Callum Mills’ editing is also as delicate as his shots, creating a restricted look that really works for the film given the way that the characters communicate their emotions, often in close-ups that isolate them in the frame and seem to almost hold them prisoner for a moment. Notably, Frank seems to only be shown in a close-up when he sees something that lifts his spirit – his family when his daughter embraces him, a young family on the beach that may remind him of days lost to the passage of time.

From the opening, it is made clear to the audience that these characters occupy a rather lonely and isolated world. The stark opening shot sees Frank completing rather mundane tasks in his home by himself, surrounded by a gloomy darkness that seems to want to consume him whole. The rare close-ups on hands (a repeated motif) remind the audience of Robert Bresson (I’m sure that that’s no accident – Bresson’s view of the world seems to link quite nicely with the views of the first half of this film) bring the characters together sparingly and culminate in the final sequence which I won’t spoil as it may harm the effect of it. 

Whilst the narrative may feel like one we’ve seen before, it is the form that really pulls it away from that feeling of cinematic deja vu as it isn’t afraid to take risks with the material. I’m of the opinion that, in cinema, the form almost always matters more than the story (‘If you want a story, read a book.’ comes to mind) and Winter’s Waltz does a great job of taking some inspirations from different types of art – from photography, from stories and from films, but most of all from the experiences that come with life whether we want them to or not – and channels them together to create something that feels unique even if the story sounds familiar. The main feature that makes the short stand on its own feet rather than fall into the (deep… very deep!) pit of films about loss if the choice of perspective and the very delicate approach to the material. We wouldn’t usually see such a story from the perspective of the old man himself, but from a family member, and we wouldn’t usually see his wordless expressions of pangs of guilt and bitterness but equally of love and reminiscence. 

As much of a cop-out improvement as it is, I have to say that I do wish that this was a little longer. No, not for the usual reason of ‘because I wanted to see more’ (although, I do!), but because one or two ideas could have used a little expanding on to really sell the emotion – the ideas are made clear, but sometimes the perspective isn’t fully grown in the time allocated to them. When considering that this is a student film, though, it becomes easier to forgive some of these small gripes and to be impressed by the great technical work and the bold approach to take the film into two halves with quite different styles to them. It’s a touching film, largely thanks to the performances and the editing, as well as a beautiful one thanks to the wonderful cinematography. A very refreshing enquiry on loss and how life continues in its aftermath.

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