Judge Kerry Birmingham has often been called a "sparkling French ingénue," but he's really all man, and he'll slug any a'youse lugs what says otherwise, you got me?
"A cerebral French beauty…truly angelic."—Elle magazine, as quoted on the DVD packaging.
Emmanuelle Béart is, in a lot of ways, the quintessential French beauty: defined cheekbones, pouty lips, and large doe-eyes that seem to take up half of her face. Probably best known to American audiences as the deceptive love interest in Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible revamp, Béart has been a fixture of the French cinema scene for the better part of two decades. Trading on her looks-let's face it, even shorn of that overwrought "truly angelic" blurb, she's what Flaubert would have undoubtedly called a "hottie"-has been Béart's stock-in-trade, playing characters of complex and nuanced sexuality that subvert expectations even while fulfilling their functions within the story—as temptress, as betrayer, as scorned lover. The three films included here, one early effort from 1992 and two more recent offerings, show Béart as just that: vulnerable yet predatory, isolated yet sympathetic, beautiful yet cold.
Facts of the Case
In Un Coeur En Hiver (A Heart in Winter), Béart plays Camille, a young violin prodigy who has taken up with a married man, violin repair expert Maxime (Andre Dussollier). Camille begins to wane in her affections when exposed to Maxime's business partner, Stephane (Daniel Auteuil), whose feelings toward Camille are decidedly mixed. The three become involved in a love triangle that unravels their relationships and brings their flaws to light.
The Story of Marie and Julien follows the rekindled relationship between Julien (Jerzy Radzilowicz), a curmudgeonly clockmaker, and Marie (Béart), an old flame of Julien's returned after some turbulence in her personal life. Things aren't perfect in their new romance, however, as Marie's secrets are slowly revealed and Julien is faced with the possibility of losing her forever.
A different kind of relationship battle is played out in Nathalie…, as a scorned woman (French cinema legend Fanny Ardant), upon her husband's (Gerard Depardieu)admission of frequent and casual extramarital affairs, hires a prostitute (Béart) to pretend to be "Nathalie," an ideal target for her husband's infidelity, and report back the lurid details of their affair.
Grouped together here as they are, it's hard not to look at these three films as thematic cousins, in addition to as vehicles for Béart and as stories of their own merit. If anything unites them beyond that, it's that they all share the same somewhat dispassionate view of love and commitment. Even The Story of Marie and Julien, the only film here with what could be called a "happy ending," approaches love and even desire as more nuisances than anything else. Perhaps they're peculiarly European in their icy detachment (and insistence on pairing Béart with a series of schlubby older men), but love is treated as a prelude to betrayal, unmitigated by best intentions or sincerity or optimism. Abstracted to the point of being hypothetical, "love" as a concept spends so much time in these movies mired in the mechanics of infidelity and base sex that in the end there no answers, just mere shrugs of frustrated futility.
1992's Un Coeur En Hiver (or A Heart in Winter, as the menus and packaging helpfully blare for the French impaired) is the earliest movie included here. Béart, still young enough to look as though she has yet to grow into her distinctive features, plays Camille the haughty violinist with justified swagger and, where appropriate, little-girl hurt; she knows the world's hers for the taking due to her beauty and talent, but her unacknowledged immaturity puts her into the arms of Dussollier's Maxime, a married, older man who sees her as a trophy. Their relationship is disturbed by Stephane, played pitch perfect by Auteuil, an actor generally known for comedy. Stephane, Maxime's partner in their violin repair business, falls for his friend's mistress and begins to court her with a calculated apathy that eventually snares Camille's interest. The impact of the movie falls squarely onto Auteuil, whose motives can be read as malicious or a function of his inability to truly relate to anyone-his is the heart referred to in the title—depending on how the viewer wants to interpret the arch of his eyebrow or his closed-mouthed, non-committal smile. Laden with emotional ambiguity, it's not a quality unique to the films included here, but it's the most successful at making silence and nothingness compelling (most likely a testament to the fine touch of the director, the old French master Claude Sautet). Béart as Camille, though relegated mainly to a prize for the two men to acquire, acquits herself well, particularly in a pair of tantrum scenes that show there's real fire burning beneath Camille's porcelain façade. It all goes about as badly as you might imagine-in a love triangle, somebody's coming out in bad shape-but it begins a trend of psychologically damaged women for Béart.
Much more recent is 2003's The Story of Marie and Julien, in which Béart reunites with her director and screenwriters from La Belle Noiseuse. To speak much of the plot would give too much away; in fact, knowing as little as possible going in is probably for the best. The plot device used here is hardly original to this story, and director Jacques Rivette, another old hand of French cinema, seems a bit embarrassed by its use, tangling up screen time in a coincidence-laden blackmail subplot and unsexy sex scenes in which Béart and her cantankerous older lover engage in (sometimes literal) dirty talk that's hardly titillating. Rivette's not known for pulse-pounding thrills or breakneck pacing, and Marie and Julien is no different. Aside from Marie's incremental breakdown, there are long, silent stretches and seemingly random non sequiturs that, even when eventually explained, seem like afterthoughts, as though the explanations and their roots in the story mechanics weren't worth exploring or even elucidating. Glacially paced and saddled with a plot device only tenuously connected to the rest of the movie, Marie and Julien moves in Rivette's precisely measured beats, switching points of view between the two title characters throughout, but all the subtle characterization and cryptic allusions in the world don't mean the film has a beating heart. When the answers start to come-nearly two hours into the running time-they seem more improbable due to their displacement of the reality of the film up to that point; Rivette, in de-emphasizing the nature of exactly what's keeping Marie and Julien apart, was probably attempting to do the opposite of that. Béart and Radzilowicz, improbably matched as lovers but fine as actors, go through their paces with all due seriousness, but in the end there's little momentum, little of interest, and little reward. At the core of the story is forbidden love, and what we will do in its name, but Rivette's proficient, clinically precise filmmaking refuses to embrace the one element of his story upon which even Marie and Julien's personal tragedies hinge. It's a noble failure, and despite having the most upbeat ending of the films included here, is the most cold, a fitting companion to Un Coeur's ambivalence.
Also from 2003 is Nathalie…, moving Béart from the damsel in Un Coeur to the victim in Marie and Julien to literally a whore here. She acts opposite two more French cinematic veterans, Ardant as Catherine, the spurned wife, and Depardieu (contractually obligated to appear in 7 out of every 10 French films per year, it seems) as Bernard, her casually cruel husband. Béart plays a hooker not so much with a heart of gold, but an eye for a fast buck and the sense to play her motives close to her chest. Not surprisingly, the subject matter-sex, don'cha know-is discussed candidly, but only that; hired to seduce Bernard and report back to Catherine, Béart's Marlene/"Nathalie" relishes describing, at length, the particular and varied sexual kinks Bernard displays in bed. As expected, the two women develop an odd kinship and begin to influence the other, culminating in a meeting between the three that doesn't go as expected for any of the three involved. Rife with subtext-there's a healthy lesbian undercurrent, for those of you into that sort of thing—Nathalie… exposes the messy insides of sex and marriage, offering no solutions, just the stark declaration that the mess exists. Many will balk at the "twist," though an attentive viewer will see it more as a natural and obvious plot progression rather than a manipulation, and the unresolved ending perfectly suits the film itself. Director Anne Fontaine doesn't pretend that anything going on in this twisted, voyeuristic love triangle is healthy or even resolvable, but she hits the moments of despair and hypocrisy with equal fervor (when Catherine lands herself a boy-toy, the act is both liberating and a bit damning). Béart is in full sexpot mode here, all fishnets and peroxide locks, using sex as a weapon and not caring who gets hurt, especially if it's herself. It would be easy to dismiss "Nathalie" as purely predatory, or purely selfish, but Béart gives the character sufficient gravity and intensity. In lesser hands, Nathalie… could have been a run-of-the-mill sex-soaked drama, a late-night cable staple; instead, it's a disquieting, faintly despairing portrait of three people unable to communicate with each other in meaningful ways. If nothing else, the lesson is: Never marry Gerard Depardieu.
Picture and sound quality are generally good on each film included here; all three are anamorphic and have Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Un Coeur En Hiver even has a new HD transfer supervised by the film's director of photography, Yves Angelo. Of the bonus features, Un Coeur En Hiver features an excerpt from a documentary on Claude Sautet, a pair of brief television interviews with Dussollier and Sautet promoting the film, a longer interview with Sautet, and the original French theatrical trailer. Marie and Julien has the most interesting extra, an extended interview with a curmudgeonly Jacques Rivette in which he roundly dismisses his off-camera interviewer's many theories and questions about the film, much to her obvious exasperation. The disc also includes an interview with Béart and the theatrical trailer. Nathalie… has a meaty making-of featurette and that ubiquitous extra, the original theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Emotional ambiguity"? "Subtle characterization"? "Unresolved ending"? "French"? These are all code words for "boring," aren't they? Where the explosions at? USA! USA! USA!
This small sampling of Béart's filmography pits the now-veteran actress against an array of her country's most famous and respected cinematic kinsmen, and she holds her own against considerable talents like Auteuil, Ardant, and Depardieu and under Sautet and Rivette's direction. The films revel in their complex portrayals of human nature and sexuality, revealing in their blunt refusal to give direct answers to some broad, troubling questions the truly labyrinthine and unknowable workings of our relationships. These films aren't all good, and even the good ones aren't entirely consistent, but it's heartening to see that basic human dilemmas to which there are no tidy resolutions can be expressed in film without hitting the viewer over the head with a moral. Appreciators of European cinema will likely find more depth to the glances and silences than a casual viewer, but there's definitely merit and thought even in these films' moments of failure. Any Stateside actress would be proud to have these films on her resume, and Béart proves more than capable of choosing material and collaborators to work both her looks and her talents.
Not Guilty. Well…VERY guilty, but all of that goes hand-in-hand with that distinctive French brand existential ennui, n'est-ce pas?
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Scales of Justice, Un Coeur En Hiver (A Heart In Winter)
Perp Profile, Un Coeur En Hiver (A Heart In Winter)
Studio: Koch Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, Un Coeur En Hiver (A Heart In Winter)
• Excerpt from Claude Sautet Documentary
Scales of Justice, Nathalie...
Perp Profile, Nathalie...
Studio: Koch Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, Nathalie...
• Making-of Featurette
Scales of Justice, The Story Of Marie And Julien
Perp Profile, The Story Of Marie And Julien
Studio: Koch Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, The Story Of Marie And Julien
• Jacques Rivette Interview
Review content copyright © 2007 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.