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20 November 2019

Un Cœur en Hiver (1993)

A Heart in Winter
Directed by Claude Sautet
Music: Maurice Ravel
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Béart, 
 André Dussollier, Brigitte Catillon,  
Élizabeth Bourgine
I fell in love with Emmanuelle Béart when I first saw her in Un Cœur en Hiver in the time of VHS tapes. Daniel Auteuil has been a favourite forever, and I’ve been wanting to review this film ever since. It’s only recently that Netflix made the film available on DVD, and I settled down for a re-watch. I was curious to see how I would feel about the film nearly 20 years since I first watched it. More about that later.

Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) is an expert luthier. His focus is on building and repairing violins, and his clientele comprises young students and their first violins as well as famous concert violinists, who are willing to travel to his little studio in Paris to get their instruments repaired.
Un Cœur en Hiver begins with Stéphane’s voiceover – he runs the studio for Maxime (André Dussollier), who takes care of the commercial aspects of the business, including customer relations. Maxime, says Stéphane, likes to win, and he, Stéphane, doesn’t mind losing. Stéphane is happy with his work, and lives vicariously through Maxime. Stéphane is happy being in the background, and is happier still to immerse himself in the world of music.  When he’s not repairing or building violins, he’s listening to the rehearsals or concerts of his clients. Maxime, on the other hand, is a world traveller, lover and liver of the good life. He’s married, but his marriage has settled into boredom, to mitigate which he indulges in transient relationships. The understanding between the two men is such that they don’t need words to communicate. It’s a match made in heaven.
Until, one day, Maxime takes Stéphane out to lunch. He has something very important to say. “What’s it?” asks Stéphane, completely deadpan. “I’ll tell you when you wipe that grin off your face,” says Maxime. “It’s gone,” says Stéphane, without moving a muscle. From the conversation that follows, we learn that Maxime has fallen in love. The woman in question is Camille (Emmanuelle Béart), a rising concert violinist.
So much in love, in fact, that he’s asked his wife for a divorce. What’s more, he’s rented an apartment nearby which he’s having done up, so he can move in with Camille. Stéphane is surprised – Maxime almost always tells him of his affairs. Why has been so silent for so long? Because of his concern for Camille, says Maxime. Camille is understandably nervous about their relationship, feeling it’s been moving too quickly, and Maxime doesn’t want to impose upon her. Besides, Camille is devoted to her art, and Maxime wants her career to flourish.

So when is he going to meet her, asks Stéphane. ‘’Look straight ahead,” says Maxime. Camille is having lunch with her agent, Régine (Brigitte Catillon) a couple of tables away.
Sensing Stéphane’s look, Camille casts an interested glance their way. On their way out, Maxime joins the two women. It’s clear to Stéphane that he dotes on Camille.

Now that Maxime has ‘introduced’ her to Stéphane, so to speak, he brings her around more often. Stéphane doesn’t have much to say, really, but his very quietness intrigues Camille. Stéphane, too, is more interested than he lets on. 
When he visits his old teacher, Lachaume (Maurice Garrell) he asks him about Camille. She had been his student just as Stéphane and Maxime had once been. Lachaume speaks highly of her; he remembers her as a ‘smooth, hard girl’ who kept to herself, but remarks that beneath her discipline, she had a temper.
Meanwhile, Camille comes to the shop with Régine, because her violin has been giving her trouble. She plays for Stéphane, and the latter is quick to spot the problem. Camille leaves her violin behind so Stéphane can fix the defect, but reminds him that she needs it for a professional recording on Friday. Stéphane promises to have it ready. During the recording, however, Camille is distracted. 
She knows she’s slowing down the movement. Stéphane, who’s in the audience, quietly gets up and leaves.   

Stéphane’s only real friend is Hélène (Élizabeth Bourgine), who owns a bookstore. She understands him. It is to her that Stéphane mentions his complicated relationship with Camille. Attraction is too strong a word, and Stéphane doesn’t believe in love. And it seems to him that love is everywhere, even in cookbooks. “Do you find that obscene?” asks Hélène. No, replies Stéphane. “The literary description of love is often very beautiful.” But he’s sure that Camille hates him. Hélène smiles – she’s sure Stéphane enjoys it.
When he next meets Camille, it’s at a dinner at Lachaume’s house. There’s a heated discussion about what constitutes art and who gets to decide what art really is. Stéphane, as is his wont, doesn’t participate. When pressed by Camille to give his opinion, he admits that both sides have valid points. ‘So we cancel each other?’ asks Camille. Stéphane shrugs. Lachaume is amused. What Stéphane means, he points out, is that they might as well shut up. Stéphane agrees that that is a tempting thought. Annoyed, Camille snaps that they run the risk of being wrong by speaking up; by keeping quiet, Stéphane can appear to be intelligent. “Perhaps I’m just afraid,” demurs Stéphane.

The next day, Camille stops by the shop to pick Maxime up. Maxime, in the middle of a lucrative deal, excuses himself to talk to the client. At a loose end, Camille wanders over to where Stéphane is supervising his assistant, Brise (Stanislas Carré de Malberg). She watches him intently without him noticing her.
When Stéphane looks up to see Camille, he’s pleasantly surprised. He offers her a drink where Camille, uncharacteristically for her, opens up about her relationship with Régine, who has been consequential in furthering her career. Yet, she’s beginning to feel suffocated by her mentor. Stéphane offers her an armchair psychoanalysis. Maxime is glad to see Stéphane and Camille get along.
Hélène, whom Stéphane meets for lunch the next afternoon, wants to know if Stéphane is in love with Camille. Though hesitant, Stéphane is unequivocal in his denial. Hélène pokes further – Camille is in love with Maxime, after all, isn’t she? Well, yes, concurs, Stéphane, though he had the impression that Camille would have preferred to dine with him the previous night.

Perhaps it is this feeling that prompts Stéphane to beat Maxime at racquet ball the next day. For a change, he’s the victor, and Maxime, who’s leaving for London that day, is amused. He’ll let Stéphane savour his victory, he smiles. On a whim, Stéphane visits Camille at her rehearsals and invites her to lunch. Surprised, Camille agrees and they spend a pleasant hour talking. Camille makes her interest in Stéphane quite clear.
But Stéphane seems to have gone back into his shell. He begins to avoid Camille, and when she finally gets him on the phone, he’s quick to tell her that he’s busy. His avoidance disturbs Camille, and begins to affect her performances.
Meanwhile, Maxime has returned from London. He whisks Stéphane off to show him the new apartment. It’s clear that Stéphane is disturbed at the thought of Maxime sharing the apartment with Camille. And Maxime begins to suspect that Stéphane’s feelings for Camille are deeper than even he will admit.
It’s a suspicion that is soon to be confirmed – following a chance meeting with Stéphane at a restaurant, Camille confesses to Maxime that she loves Stéphane. Though hurt, Maxime withdraws with grace.

Will Camille get the happy ending she craves? Will Stéphane admit, even to himself, that Camille has become very important to his happiness? What will happen to Stéphane’s partnership with Maxime?

On the face of it, Un Cœur en Hiver is the usual love story, a romantic triangle between one woman and two men. Does it resolve and end in ‘happy every after’? Certainly, a more usual film might have done so. But as Roger Ebert points out, “…characters in French films seem more grownup than those in American films. They do not consider love and sex as a teenager might, as prizes in life. Instead, they are challenges and responsibilities, not always to be embraced.”

Claude Sautet tells the story of these three lovers, painting muddled emotions with delicacy. Love in Un Cœur en Hiver is as messy as it often is, in real life. The characters all do things they regret, and there are no do-overs. Second chances may not always be there, and if they are, one might not always want to take them. Love can be incomplete.
Stéphane is a man who cannot love, at least not as most people would define ‘love’. When Camille asks him whether he’s staying away from her because Maxime is a friend, Stéphane remarks that Maxime is his partner, not a friend. Camille is surprised – Maxime considers Stéphane a friend. That’s his problem, responds Stéphane. Auteuil has a very mobile face, but in this film, there’s a stillness about it that’s deceptive. As Stéphane, he’s visibly awkward in social situations, and his natural reserve underlines his inability to commit to intimacy in a relationship. The damage that he inflicts on Camille is not deliberate; the lack of an emotional core does not allow him to feel the intensity of her emotions, or to even understand them. It’s an inward-looking performance and Auteuil plays him with pinpoint accuracy. Any less emotion and he might have come across as wooden. Any more, and the character would have tipped over into a cad.
But the performance that stood out for me was that of Emmanuelle Béart’s.  She puts in a bravura performance as Camille, a woman who falls in love with a man she cannot have. What’s even more impressive is that Béart practiced the violin for nearly a year so she could look authentic playing Ravel’s sonatas on screen.

Like Auteuil, Béart has a tough line to straddle – a woman who falls in love with her lover’s friend is not usually a very sympathetic character. Béart's beauty only adds to her performance as the rigidly controlled Camille. So, when, in one shot, she stoops to a very public recrimination of Stéphane, almost unhinged in her emotional devastation, the deliberate sloppiness of her very garish makeup is doubly disturbing. 
In Béart’s capable hands, the scene becomes poignant rather than overly melodramatic. In the film’s final shot, Camille turns to look at Stéphane through the car window. They have made their peace with each other. It’s good-bye.
It’s a shot that has haunted me ever since I watched this film the first time. It’s the only time I’ve seen someone’s heart in their eyes. 

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