Often, writer-director-actor Eric Schaeffer’s work has distant echoes of Woody Allen’s, and so it is in “After Fall, Winter,” at least inasmuch as it sets his hero wandering nighttime Paris streets in search of romance. What he finds, however — including sexual fetishism, financial deprivation, suicide attempts and a dying gypsy girl — looms decidedly weirder and more explicit than anything in Allen’s canon. Though blessed with a radiant lead perf by Gallic thesp Lizzie Brochere, this limited release may polarize auds, who will judge whether Schaeffer’s wit and perception sufficiently balance his operatic self-pity.
The title proves more literal than its seasonal truism implies, since the film reps the second installment of a projected quartet, the first installment of which was 1997’s”Fall.” The plan is for the pics to be spaced 14 years apart, all starring Schaeffer as writer Michael Shiver.
Like most of his endeavors, from “My Life in Turnaround” and “If Lucy Fell” to the more recent “We’re Out of the Business,” Schaeffer rarely strays far from the autobiographical, at least insofar as his own character is concerned. “Winter” finds Michael $600,000 in debt, unable to land a publisher for his latest novel, and evicted from his fashionable Gotham apartment. His life in free-fall, he contemplates suicide — but instead moves to Paris.
It’s there that the film opens, albeit not on Michael but on Sophie (Brochere), plunging immediately into her two seemingly contradictory vocations, as a dominatrix and a nurse to the terminally ill. (She takes a call from a dying woman, with the phone cord wrapped tightly around the throat of a nude, bound client.)
Once Michael arrives in Paris, the film briefly turns into a quirky romantic comedy, complete with requisite meet-cute and playful nocturnal strolls through the City of Lights. Michael trots out his repertoire of lightly outrageous pickup lines, shot through with disarming moments of painful honesty, to woo Sophie, who’s 15 years his junior.
But unleashed emotions resonate painfully between the damaged, thin-skinned lovers, drawn together only to skitter apart at every perceived wrong. They no sooner start to settle into a harmonious rhythm, expanding their circle to touch Sophie’s memory-damaged mother (Niseema Theillaud) and her 13-year-old leukemia patient (Marie Luneau, excellent), than their sexual secrets threaten their hard-won trust: Sophie says nothing of her whip-cracking alter ego, while Michael, who periodically employs dominatrices to externalize his sense of failure and self-loathing, denies any interest in S&M. What could have been comic soon turns tragic.
Schaeffer approaches film primarily as a writer-performer, controlling his flatly shot scenes from the inside, which serves to naturalize and energize exchanges between characters, but insufficiently encompasses a larger view. Uncomfortably confessional or wildly melodramatic plot twists work interestingly in the moment, but wobble in retrospect. Pic’s overarching structure is further weakened by Schaeffer’s half-hearted attempt to tie together loose ends.