THE WINTER GUEST (film reception)

Ever since I compared film critics’ and a group of older women’s views of Le Chat*  I have been interested in the way people react to films. Why are some elements of the film not perceived, or registered and what is the personal input in the interpretations that form the opinion after a first viewing?  Often when discussing a film with friends, I am accused of trying to impose my view when I am just trying to find the sources of the differences. My expectations when I see a film about old women are biased by my interest in the subject of ageing and ageism.

When I first saw The Winter Guest  (1997) I was probably working on my thesis. As I noted in my previous posts about this film I dismissed it as irrelevant to my area of interest. On April 11th 2015 after attending  a very carefully staged funeral, I wrote on my ageing, ageism blog ** how the image of the two women who went to funerals as a leisure activity in Rickman’s film had resurfaced in my memory.

After reviewing the thread of Lily and Chloe I wrote “It is debatable that viewers can perceive the meaning of the subtle exposition of these 13 sequences interrupted by scenes about the three other couples. The reviewers comment mainly on the Law/Thompson couple. For me when isolated and viewed continuously these scenes are a very good exposition of the transformation of a ritual that has lost its meaning into a personal consciousness of mortality and the importance of friendly support”

I showed the film to 4 members of the film group***. I usually ask the viewers to express in a few words their gut reactions to the film before having an open discussion.  This time I asked them to write these reactions so that they were not influenced by each other. I quoted Ebert’s assessment.

I was surprised that in spite of being sensitised by the focus of our group – the representation of old women – only one woman did  mention the old women couple in their overall assessment. She found them funny but sad.  She also mentioned the love and difficulties of the mother/daughter relationship. In the following discussion it appeared that the old women were  perceived as a comic diversion, that they were stereotypes.  I differed in that although the idea of going to funerals as one goes to see a performance is amusing I found no evidence of comedy or  stereotypical treatment of Chloe and Lily in my analysis.

In cases where I differ from the group or other of my friends I consult the reviewers and critics to have a general impression of how the film was received. In this case, they were of little help.  In the absence of a comprehensive study and analysis of the responses it is impossible to ascertain the different elements of the films that produced extremely contradictory opinions.  I had a quick look at the major film review sites. Although the majority concentrated on the mother/daughter relationship they were extremely diverse in their assessments: the film was ‘too theatrical, wonderfully translated to the screen, visually stunning, difficult to care about what happens, a banal message,  etc…’ The treatment of Lily and Chloe as old women  was as a rule, given only a passing mention. However there were two critics who saw the episodes as comic relief while two others saw them as confronting their mortality and the depth of their relationship.  There were a few overtly ageist uses of language: “two elderly biddies who get their kicks attending strangers’ funerals” (Variety, Deborah Young) “funeral junkies” (Time Out) .

A specific difference of opinion centred around the fact that although the environment  was supposed to be of extreme cold, a frozen sea, icy streets, snow, the characters did not show the effects of this cold. Here again there was some agreement between some of the critics and some of the women . ‘They wore no gloves, scarves, the breath did not steam out of their mouths, it is impossible to run on ice as they did without slipping.’ For other critics, the cold just symbolised grief, mourning, fear of death in the two stories that I viewed in detail. (see previous posts).

The differences between spectators in assessing this film may be due to two factors. Considering again only the episodes concerning the two sets of women, the structure of the narrative that jumps from one set of characters to others prevents the appreciation of a script and a mise-en-scene that is complex, rich and challenging. Lily’s detailed description of burial and cremation that so disturbs her friend is a subject rarely tackled in the melodrama genre. Similarly, the exchanges between Elspeth and Frances are full of  nuances suggesting closeness, antagonisms, cruelty, and affection in turns. The final request for support by the mother to the daughter and the daughter’s compliance is far from the usual Mother/Daughter conflicts of the classic melodrama.

I have read recently about mirror neurones that may be implicated in film viewing. I would suggest that the difference between my enthusiastic reception of the first 4 minutes of The Winter Visitor  and the comments about the unrealistic effect of the cold climate on the characters could be explained by mirror neurones activity and interpretation of the film images. In the first sequences Elspeth’s character is present bodily: her movements, her expressions, her determination and her interaction with the changing harsh environment encourage empathy. On the other hand the lack of effect of the cold weather, the light, the frozen sea on the body of the characters may thwart the expectations of the viewers and prevent empathy hence the remark of one member of the group: “I was very annoyed that nothing in the visuals actually made me Feel Cold” .

I often find that differences of opinions about the films we see in our group are enlightening and the discussions an added pleasure of the cinema.

* See under ‘resources’ on the menu bar.

** (

THE WINTER GUEST Film Group June 11th

No members of the group had seen the film before.

Written contributions before open discussion

J.G. : Yes the film is about death, represent four stages of life but no to the feeling of emptiness. Overall I found the transitions – in life- a bit overwritten and forced. I was very annoyed that nothing in the visuals actually made me feel cold. One thing Ebert did not cover is ‘friendship’ both between the funeral group and the young boys. I found the disappearing into the mist of the boys at the end hearbreaking and unnecessary. All in all I liked the film but it was only in part about ageing and mother/ daughter stuff. The young boys ‘lines’ were unrealistic – again script driven.

L.K. : I felt that the four couples represented the 4 stages of life. The younger wanting to grow up but fear of the future. The courting couple not quite ready. The love and difficulties of the mother and daughter relationships that are so complex and caught into patterns . The funerals couple, comic, but sad and full of fear. The unexpected ending of the younger two walking out to the unknown – better than the known. Liked the movement between the pairs. Lovely film. M.G.: My immediate feeling is that unlike the case with most other films I don’t know what I think about this one and need others’ views to stimulate my thoughts. All I can really think about is the force and beauty of the landscape and photography of it. As to what these four sets of relationships mean – I hope it is not just the single thought that people need each other even if they find it hard to express.

E.M.: The film is extremely pictorial and slow-moving, which I liked. It was first and foremost about relationships and subtle about them.The acting was very convincing and that of the young boys was super.The photography is exceptional. The only mention of the location of the film is in the credits at the end and in the use of a “Scottish” accent.

M.G.: My immediate feeling is that unlike the case with most other films, I don’t know, what I think about this one and need others’ views to stimulate my thoughts. All I can really think about is the force and beauty of the landscape and photography, of it. As to what these four sets of relationships mean – I hope it isn’t just the simple thought that people need each other even if they find it hard to express.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
This entry was posted in Ageing, Ageism, Film Analysis, FILM RECEPTION and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to THE WINTER GUEST (film reception)

  1. How about the treatment of the old woman in Harold and Maude? Do you have views on that?

  2. rinaross says:

    Hello there. If you go to the website , there is a search box. Harold and Maude shows two entrees . My own feelings and the old women film group’s .

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