Judge Russell Engebretson pondered the question: Would I follow Stephane's example and turn down Camille's generous offer? He decided en principe, oui.
Our review of The Emmanuelle Beart Collection, published November 8th, 2007, is also available.
It's the encounter of an iceberg and a flame, with all the tension and head-spin of an impossible love story.
The slow, steady pace of Un Coeur en Hiver, like a coiled snake sunning on a stone, is languid yet imbued with potential danger. Un Coeur en Hiver is a romantic drama and not a thriller. Yet there is menace—not the possibility of physical harm, but the emotional damage the characters may inflict on one another as their odd love triangle takes shape.
Facts of the Case
The young and beautiful concert violinist Camille (Emmanuelle Béart, 8 Women) is engaged to violin shop owner Maxime (André Dussollier, Lemming). But she finds herself attracted to Maxime's longtime partner, the emotionally distant violin luthier Stephane (Daniel Auteuil, Aprè Vous). Stephane at first seems indifferent to his skirt-chasing partner's latest paramour, and then learns that Maxime has truly fallen for Camille. Stephane begins to woo Camille, but as she is drawn to him, he in turn becomes distant. After he has finished repairing her violin, he throws himself deeply back into his work and the training of a young apprentice.
Camille is involved in intense work of her own—rehearsals for an upcoming recording session of some Ravel chamber music—but she finds time to pursue Stephane. As her pursuit becomes more ardent, Stephane works harder to elude her affections.
Maxime—a shrewd, extroverted businessman who is nobody's fool—is not unaware of a change in his fiancée's demeanor. Affairs of the heart are his forte, and his suspicions slowly focus on his old friend and business partner.
I won't spoil the film's plot turns and conclusion by revealing the minutiae of the story, but I think it's fair to say this is adult French cinema with a denouement that is neither too sweet nor to bitter, and it is open to interpretation depending on your critique of Stephane's character.
This was director Claude Sautet's (1924-2000) next to last film, and some have argued his best. The script is vaguely based on Russian writer Lermontov's short novel A Hero of Our Time, although Sautet reshaped it into entirely his own creation. The movie is filled with the concerns and images that can be found in many other of the director's films.
A common Sautet image is the café. There are numerous scenes in cafés, which clearly represent places of warmth and camaraderie. The café, with its conversational murmur, fragrances, and good food is a refuge from daily workday struggles. But there are personal conflicts from the outside world even here. In one café scene a mini-drama unfolds as Stepahne and Camille, with some uneasy amusement, overhear the heated conversation of a couple at a nearby table. The woman is berating her male companion in angry tones, and as her voice escalates we expect an ugly scene. Instead the woman becomes quiet, stares at the still figure of her companion, and suddenly reaches for his hand. Camille whispers to Stephane, "Look, he's crying." That kind of small, heart-squeezing moment is what lifts the movie out of melodrama and into the realm of adult drama.
Here is an example of the script's fine dialogue (and I should mention here that the characters of Un Coeur en Hiver are uniformly of the French petite bourgeoisie). There is a gently ironic scene near the film's beginning in which a smart but pompous dinner guest, a writer, holds forth on his theory of popular culture versus true art. When he is lightly challenged by another guest, he responds, "So, I'm a reactionary?" "No," says a wiser, older fellow "you speak for an anxious elite in a world of democratic excess." The writer responds with, "I've fought elitism all my life. There's too much bleating today." But then he continues by saying, "Museum's today are full of clueless clodhoppers." Is this kind of wit and dissection of class to be found anywhere in today's American cinema? This snippet of the scene, for all its interest, is mere filigree to the core of the story's concerns. Yet as the scene continues, the three main characters are drawn into the conversation in a way that illuminates their relations to one another up to this point in the film. The small dinner scene is a good example of the intelligence and mature vision that suffuses the whole movie.
The characters are well-rounded and, like real people, often nebulous in their motives and desires. In particular, Auteuil's interpretation of Stepahne is remarkable in the way he conveys emotions for this seemingly cold and detached individual. The slightest curl of a lip or twitch of an eyebrow reveals a keen intelligence and shades of emotion that would tax the ability of a lesser actor.
Stephane's seduction is subtle, passive, and ambiguous. Does he have a genuine affection for Camille, or is he subconsciously manipulating her as if she were one of his specialized violin tools, a tool to repair his apparent ennui and emotional coldness? I have to write "apparent" because he is not a sociopath or obvious emotional cripple. Perhaps he is unable or unwilling to renounce his solitary nature because his work and love of music is more important to him than the distractions of human fellowship. For that matter, the movie seems to ask if there is anything wrong with his hermetic existence. Are "true love" and carnal fulfillment, as most romantic American cinema would have it, the only goals worth seeking, or is Stephane's violin-making craftsmanship an equally worthy life pursuit? The director does not deliver us pat answers. The viewer's personal inclinations will likely determine his or her conclusions.
The DVD transfer is a high definition mastering that was supervised by the director of photography Yves Angelo. It is a splendid transfer, a subdued but natural color pallet full of the reddish brown tone of bowed instruments, warm and woody interiors, and brightly lit restaurants full of glass and mirrors. I did not see a hint of ringing or any kind of compression artifacts on a four by seven foot projection screen. It's a reference transfer that's comparable to anything I can remember having seen. The sound is also as good as could be expected of compressed Dolby digital audio. The violin and cello playing—of which there is quite a bit—is rich and full sounding, actors' voices are clear and centered, and all the background sounds are sharp and natural without overpowering the dialogue.
Extras are minimal. The one standout bonus is the excellent 25 minute interview with director Claude Sautet that seems to have been taped shortly after the release of Un Coeur en Hiver (the date is not given). He looks back on his film career and discusses his working method, the working habits of his actors, and philosophical outlook on life in general. His comments are frank, sometimes a bit playful, but always gentlemanly.
The loving care invested into this picture, even before the actual shoot, is evident throughout. Béart studied violin for a year to precisely mimic the movement's of a real violinist, and Daniel Auteuil studied violin construction and repair for a year. The script was labored over for months by the writing team of Sautet, Jacques Fieschi, and Jérôme Tonnerre. The masterful results of all this pre-production work is clear to see in the completed film.
In the four-page printed insert included with the DVD, film critic Michel Boujut writes that "…Sautet, like many French directors of his generation, was deeply influenced by post-war American films. His first great masters were John Ford, Howard Hawks, and John Huston." That probably accounts at least in part for the clean, old-school framing of shots on this film. The cinematography is calm and deliberate: over-the-shoulder shots, medium close-ups, gliding shots that follow the actors naturally. There are no jittery hand-held cameras, fast MTV-like cuts, or any of the novelty film techniques that force the viewer's eye to follow the lead of the director and editor. It was a refreshing change of pace—especially after the last few hyperkinetic American films I've seen—to watch a movie that emphasizes acting and dialogue over camera trickery. The slow, steady cinematography gives the viewer time to linger over the frame and take in the sumptuous detail, the facial expressions, the play of light and shadow.
If you like artful and intelligent French cinema, Un Coeur en Hiver is an essential film. The movie should reward repeated viewings, and the extra fine DVD transfer makes it a worthwhile purchase for one's collection.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Excerpt from Claude Sautet Documentary
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