The relationship between a stubborn, uncommunicative ex-con and his just-as-obstinate, terminally ill mother is explored to understated effect in “A Few Hours of Spring.” Gallic helmer Stephane Brize’s follow-up to his breakout hit, “Mademoiselle Chambon,” is again all about what’s left unsaid, an m.o. that’s better suited to the film’s first half, before the minutiae of the mother’s assisted suicide are portrayed in such dispassionate detail that it forces the characters’ emotional lives onto the backburner. Surface similarities to Michael Haneke’s French-language Palme d’Or winner, “Amour,” could help savvy boutique distribs drum up interest in this downer title.
After “Not Here to Be Loved” and “Mademoiselle Chambon,” helmer Brize continues his delicate examination of ordinary, working-class French characters from the sticks, incapable of articulating how they really feel.
Like “Chambon,” the film stars weather-beaten character actor Vincent Lindon as the clammed-up protag. A short-tempered, fortysomething truck driver who’s just spent 18 months in prison for drug smuggling, Alain (Lindon) has moved back in with his widowed mother, Yvette (Helene Vincent), who is ailing but still active. Their renewed cohabitation is not an act of love but the result of unfortunate circumstances, and the meticulous Yvette has a hard time putting up with her slob of a son, a feeling that’s entirely mutual.
The friction that develops between these two equally headstrong characters arises organically from hushed scenes of domestic observation in Brize and Florence Vignon’s script. In a particularly strong sequence, Yvette, who projects determination and inner strength without raising her voice, has dinner alone in the dining room while the more easily agitated Alain eats in the kitchen. Brize and editor Anne Klotz effectively cut between the two different rooms where mother and son eat alone, in silence, with the family dog promoted to the role of unofficial go-between (the characters’ use of the pet will became a leitmotif).
About 40 minutes in, “A Few Hours of Spring” gradually shifts focus, as it emerges that Yvette’s cancer, which had stabilized, has spread and become incurable, and she has subsequently contacted a Swiss association specializing in euthanasia (which is illegal in France).
Though Brize doesn’t entirely ignore the mostly subliminal effects of Yvette’s decision on her rapport with Alain, the film’s already distanced tone becomes even more clinical. Scenes of preparation for Yvette’s death almost coming across as an infomercial populated with unknowns, rather than a dramatic event that’s happening to this woman and has strong emotional repercussions for her offspring. The director, who used Stephanie Malphettes and Stephan Villeneuve’s documentary “Le Choix de Jean” as reference material, drifts too much into docu mode himself.
Lindon delivers another strong perf completely sans frills, while Gallic theater pro Vincent gives an atypical but entirely convincing turn as a calm yet determined mother who takes her sad destiny firmly into her own hands. Together, they evoke a world full of painful, unspoken history and, though it’s barely mentioned, the always-present specter of Alain’s father. Emmanuelle Seigner is a vivid, emotionally complex presence in the small role of a woman Alain initially connects with, only to find he needs to sort out his own feelings first.
Brize’s quiet, unobtrusive approach also extends to the craft contributions. Lenser Antoine Heberle’s soft lighting and slightly saturated images, production designer Valerie Saradjian and costume designer Ann Dunsford’s preference for muted colors, and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ pared-back score all reinforce the film’s reined-in tone.