Un Coeur en Hiver

(A Heart in Winter, France 1992)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Béart, André Dussollier, Elizabeth Bourgine, Brigitte Catillon 
Genre: Romance
Director: Claude Sautet
Screenplay: Jacques Fieschi, Claude Sautet, Jerome Tonnerre
Cinematography: Yves Angelo
Composer: Maurice Ravel
Runtime: 105 minutes

Un Coeur en Hiver is the total opposite of the Hollywood romance. It's shows love as a problem rather than a solution. It focuses on what's missing rather than what is present, asking the audience to sit forward and gaze in wonder rather than sit back and consume. There's not even a real kiss between the "lovers" in the film; its power comes from the desire to do these things that can't be acted upon. It tells the story with expressions and movements rather than with words. It's not warm, fuzzy, or sentimental; it's very mundane, detached, and understated. There's nothing tidy or convenient about it; it's an unresolved enigma that actually offers insight into the inner workings of the human heart and mind. It will bore some people to tears because it isn't there to "entertain," but ultimately it's far more entertaining because the viewer has much reason to be interested and engaged. It is an intelligent and complex character study that is not the least bit predictable.

The relationship between Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) and Maxime (Andre Dussollier) is in some ways similar to Beverly & Elliott Mantle in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. They are not identical twins and this is not a venereal horror, but the way they function together and handle their business forms a "collective whole." Maxime is like Elliott in that he uses his social skills and charm to attract the clients to their business, which is making and repairing violins. Stephane is like Beverly in that he is the genius worker, the best in his field, but always stays in the background, sheltered by the other half. They are not trying to be one like the Mantle's; their relationship is simply symbiotic.

Stephane should be more than he is, and it's not Maxime that's holding him down. On the contrary, Maxime attracts the best violinists in the world to come to Paris so Stephane can meet their needs. Stephane's problem is that he defines his life in relation to Maxime. Stephane is glad to work for Maxime because, even though he's far more talented, Maxime possesses the client skills. It's not that Stephane is lazy or doesn't want to deal with these things. On the contrary, he looks up to Maxime, envying his abilities and wishing they were his own. It's that Stephane is in some way incapable of dealing with these matters.

As was the case in Dead Ringers, it's a woman recruited by the dominant personality that comes between the two men because she falls in love with the recessive personality. The woman is Camille (Emmanuelle Beart), an extremely talented up and coming violinist who needs their help because she is about to record some of Ravel's works. Maxime is dating Camille before you know it, leaving his wife for her, but a conversation Camille has with Stephane changes everything. Their talk is business related, and it quickly becomes obvious that Stephane is far more knowledgeable about her playing and playing in general than Maxime, but his great ears are not the point.

The point is Camille falls in love with him. She is intrigued by him and determined to crack him, but part of the brilliance of the film is that it doesn't give us clear-cut reasons for anything. At its center is Stephane, who is probably the most ambiguous main character I've ever seen. He is like a clam that can't even be pried open. He doesn't ever let anyone know anything about himself. He can do everything in regards to the violin, answer any technical question, tell exactly what the problem is from hearing a couple of notes, and quickly fix it all. However, he is almost like a robot. He cannot show a feeling or an emotion. He can't even give an opinion on a trivial matter because it would be a slight representation of personality, of humanity.

Stephane is unable to take Camille away from Maxime, but it is up to the viewer to decide what Stephane's problem truly is. He doesn't have to do anything to take her away, she tells Maxime she loves Stephane instead, handing herself to Stephane on a silver platter. It's not Maxime, for he is shocked because this has never happened before and certainly not happy to lose an exquisite woman of such eminent quality, but he doesn't do anything to prevent or hinder Stephane, who is even more shocked, from going out with her.

The brilliance of Un Coeur en Hiver is in the way the characters and relationships are handled. It's a romance, but different than almost any that aren't from its director, Claude Sautet. He presents feelings and relationships as they really are sensitive, delicate, intricate, hard to explain much less solve, and certainly not clear-cut. He challenges the viewers to watch closely and decide why the people are acting the way they are, what is holding them back, and why can't the interior and exterior come together. He shows the exterior as a façade, a front put up to hide your true self. He shows the interior as something so complicated, especially the struggle between desire and acting on it, and so potentially painful. This is better shown in his subsequent and unfortunately final movie Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud, featuring an even more magnificent performance by Beart, where the relationship is a chess match and any action based on true feelings is too much of a gamble.

Gamble is certainly something that Stephane is not prepared to do. The intrigue of his character is we can only guess why. His problem might be that he is simply incapable of expressing a feeling. It's easy to say love, but Stephane won't even admit Maxime is his friend. He claims they just work together. Stephane is an isolationist that pretty much only has acquaintances through his life, err, I mean his work. When Stephane is in a group, he only occasionally opens his mouth, and even then he never really says anything. His solo conversations tend to consist of the other person getting trying to figure him out, but getting nowhere.

There is a woman named Helene (Elisabeth Bourgine) who works in a bookshop that Stephane sometimes goes out to eat with. She could be his lover, but she accepts him for what he is so that let's that out. She should then be his confidant, his sounding board. Of course, he has nothing to confide and you have to present ideas to get an opinion on them so that's expressively a no no. Their relationship is basically passing time in someone else's company; they tell each other about what is going on in their lives, with Stephane always sticking to the "facts" and Helene never putting him in the position where he has to answer with an opinion or feeling. There is a certain bond between the two, but they have the kind of relationship that will stay on the same level for all eternity because that's the only level Stephane appears to be capable of operating on.

Stephane's problem might be that he's too comfortable with his routine. I know some people will say that he's too good a friend to Maxime. It's probably just the opposite; he's too selfish. Maxime's life doesn't revolve around Stephane, but like anyone you could call a friend he does things because he cares about Stephane. Stephane, I think, just does things because they are convenient to him, allow him to prosper professionally while he's mainly shut up in a back room. Part of the routine is watching Maxime get all the good women, but it's a tradeoff for him. Maxime gets the women, and Stephane gets safety for there is no risk if you never enter into a relationship.

There is potentially a small subtle hint of a failed relationship in the past, but it could also be taken as him probably loving Camille. There's also some evidence of family problems, but nothing conclusive to root the problems in because it's not about blaming any one thing or event. This Stephane character is frustrating and infuriating for that reason. He's the kind of person you could be around for 80 years without ever really knowing. It's really tempting to say his problem is that there really isn't any. It's like with his violin playing; he doesn't do it because he concocts some reason or reasons not to. He is so knowledgeable about the instrument and the sounds it emits, but he doesn't like the sounds that come from him, I think because they are his, so he doesn't play. His heart is the same way, it can function but no one knows to what extent because he won't allow them to find out.

Daniel Auteuil's portrayal of Stephane once again shows why he's the best French actor. The role is very difficult because he has to separate his exterior from his interior, showing the struggle between the two to the audience without showing it to the people he's around. His exterior is very robotic, but at the same time we see his inner turmoil. He isn't incapable of feeling; he's just far more ambivalent than almost anyone on the planet. He's much slower to come around to having feelings, it's like he has to convince himself and by then his window of opportunity with the other person is closed. Even if it's not, it doesn't matter because he's incapable of expressing his feelings, of having a personality. There are certainly points where we can see he has them, but they are so restrained and never put into words. It's a great subtle and understated performance.

Beart who makes everything she does beautiful. The way she carries herself in this picture, her radiant and classy demeanor, is so impressive. Apparently she never even picked up a violin before taking this role, but she gives one of the most credible performances of a non-player (Jean-Jacques Kantorow does a wonderful job on the actual soundtrack) ever put to film. She captures the passion and emotion - the fire, dedication, and passion it takes to be great- yet she's not lost in her music to the point where her surroundings don't affect her. Instead, we see how depending on where their relationship is, Stephane's presence causes her to screw up or give the most unbelievable moving performance of her career. Of course, it's not surprising she does so well since she seemingly can make anything seem beautiful and artistic. Thus something that actually is falls well within her ability, but because such artistry is required it's still very difficult to portray believably and accurately.

The music really enhances the film, but Beart's role is not all about playing the violin. It's about losing herself in the emotion of love. This is a role that theoretically has been worn out beyond belief and cliched to death, but with her ability behind an excellent script it feels like something entirely new. There are times when she is embarrassed publicly or makes a scene, but she never seems pathetic, foolish, or out of control. She always maintains her dignity and makes us feel that there is no problem on her end. She fell for the wrong man, but love isn't something you can control, flipping it on or off like a light switch when the time seems right or wrong. She fell in love with someone that should be good for her since he shares her interest and understanding in music; it's both their lives. It's just that sometimes it doesn't work out. There is certainly no problem with Beart's wonderful emotionally naked performance. It's so beautifully subdued, intense yet rich in gesture and inflection without going over the top. If her character Camille has a problem, it's that she has a hard time dealing with losing. She changes a lot because she is obsessed with this man that perhaps cannot be understood, and goes through a rough withdrawal period after she can't crack Stephane and he does his best to chase her away. Eventually she learns to deal with it, to accept Stephane for what he is like the other people around him were forced to do, but that doesn't change her feelings for him or his inability to act.

Un Coeur en Hiver is either going to be a film you love or a film you hate. If you come into it expecting the kind of romance that Richard "One" Gere or Sandra Bollocks would be in then you'll be sorely disappointed and probably will fall asleep. You have to come into this with and open mind and a willingness to explore human actions and emotions. This is not a film that's going to provide you with a bunch of answers, but a deeply affecting one that you'll be trying to put your own meaning to for weeks on end.



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