by Claire Monk
Paris. Violin-maker Stéphane and his friend Maxime have been business partners for many years, but both now take their friendship as given and probe little into each other’s lives. One day, Maxime tells Stéphane he is in love with Camille, a promising young violinist, and points her out in a cafe. Camille lives with her manager Régine, an older woman who has supported her career from the start; Maxime is leaving his already-dead marriage, and the two plan to live together. Visiting his old music teacher Lachaume at his country house, Stéphane questions him about Camille, whom he also taught; Lachaume recalls her mix of coolness and ‘temperament’. Camille brings her violin to Stéphane to have a new bridge fitted. The repair complete, Stéphane and Maxime attend a private recital of hers. She is dissatisfied with the sound, but vehement that she, not the violin, is the problem. Stéphane leaves, and her tension eases.
Stéphane reports Camille’s unease to his friend Hélène. In a dinner-party argument at Lachaume’s, Stéphane is challenged over his reluctance to express an opinion, and Camille defends him. After initial resistance, she allows him to make further improvements to her violin. Waiting for Maxime at the workshop one evening, her attention is drawn to Stéphane, still at work, and she confesses to him that relations are fraught with the possessive Régine, who resents her relationship with Maxime. Stéphane tells Hélène he feels Camille would rather be eating out with him than with Maxime, but denies any jealousy. Stéphane visits the studio where Camille is recording; they go to a nearby bar and she questions him intensely about himself but then leaves suddenly. When Camille rings, while Maxime is showing Stéphane round the flat being prepared for him and Camille, Stéphane is powerfully affected. Camille confronts him and asks if he is avoiding her because he and Maxime are friends. He shocks her by replying that they are not friends, only partners.
Now living together, Camille and Maxime discuss for the first time the fact that she is in love with Stéphane. Going away briefly on business, Maxime phones Stéphane asking him to go to the recording studio. At the post-recording party, Camille makes Stéphane drive her away. As they stop outside a hotel, she propositions him. He rejects her, claiming to have seduced her as a game, perhaps to get at Maxime. Broken, she gets out of the car. Returning, Maxime finds Régine at the flat caring for Camille, who is drunk and deeply humiliated. Camille seeks Stéphane out at the cafe, where he is eating with Hélène; she taunts him, then pleads with him until a waiter throws her out. Maxime walks in, hits Stéphane and leaves.
Stéphane and Maxime part company. Lachaume berates Stéphane, questioning his motives; Stéphane visits Camille and she coolly accepts his apology. Eight months pass; Stéphane has set up in a new workshop. Maxime visits, tells him that Camille has recovered, and half-heartedly suggests renewing their partnership. Stéphane and Maxime visit Lachaume, who is now terminally ill. His housekeeper Madame Amet tells Stéphane that Lachaume has been begging her to end his life but she cannot do it. Stéphane enters Lachaume’s room and administers the necessary injection. Back in Paris, Stéphane discusses the loss of Lachaume with Camille. Both say they are glad to have met again. Maxime comes in to collect her and they depart, leaving Stéphane alone.
* * *
Bourgeois love and life are hardly underexplored terrain in the French cinema, and for no particular reason Claude Sautet’s 40-year career has had muted-to-nonexistent impact in the UK until now. That Un Coeur en Hiver, his twelfth feature, has broken the mould is largely due to its deserved Silver Lion at the 1992 Venice Festival. Sautet has remarked that the structure of a film is itself musical; and the completeness of Un Coeur en Hiver as a virtuoso piece of filmmaking derives not merely from such high-quality ingredients as the flawless central performances but from its discernibly symphonic structure, marked by assured variations of rhythm and texture closely linked to the development of its themes.
From the familiar starting point of an emotional triangle, Sautet explores two considerably more engrossing and perplexing notions: on the one hand, a passive but consciously manipulative seduction which — in terms of sexual action — never actually ‘happens’, and on the other, a solid yet curiously substanceless male friendship whose very existence can suddenly be denied. As the catalyst of these disruptions, the seemingly shy and introverted Stéphane is central to the film’s meanings — most crucially, as the owner of the coeur en hiver of the title — and the perfectly calibrated emotional shifts from scene to scene, as Sautet charts the tacit dance of pursuit and withdrawal between him and Camille, becomes a parallel investigation into the (ultimately insoluble) riddle of his true motives and emotions.
The film’s opening — a detailed but oddly detached dissection by Stéphane of his friendship with Maxime — seems to set up the former as the natural focus for our sympathy, but the images accompanying his voice-over foreshadow the subtly different story about to unfold. A shot of Stéphane beating Maxime at squash shows a competitiveness — and taste for ‘games’ — very much at odds with the ultra-humility of his demeanour. When Stéphane tells us that he and Maxime “haven’t spent an evening together in years” — ambiguously asserting, “it suits us both fine” — the complex pathos of the accompanying image of the former alone in his workshop at night, holding a tiny automaton of a violinist, identifies him as a withdrawn figure for whom solitude is a form of self-protection and whose most intimate bond is with his work.
At the same time, the image of the automaton — a musician in Stéphane’s hands — also suggests a power relation, both mystical and manipulative, between violin-maker and violinist. In contrast to the customary cinematic equations between swelling music and burgeoning passion, Sautet’s interest is in music as work. The texture of activity in Stéphane’s workshop is so tangibly evoked that you can almost smell the varnish. The satisfying rasp of a bridge being hollowed contributes as much to the musically sparse soundtrack as the strains of Ravel (though Béart, who learnt the violin specially for the film, wields the bow with astonishing conviction and emotion); and the characters’ professional relationships become a channel for the expression of more intimate and intangible interactions.
Stéphane and Maxime’s roles as craftsman and businessman — the one introvert and spiritual, the other extrovert and material — are established early on as denoting two entirely different ways of relating to the world. Most critically, the apparent reticence which attracts Camille to Stéphane is powerfully bound up in his mystique as an instrument-maker and her hunger for his professional approval (when he ceases turning up to watch her record, she frets about whether her playing has displeased him). Where Stéphane uses his craft as a means of protecting himself from the world and its feelings — hence his disquiet when Maxime upsets the equilibrium of their partnership by falling in love — his profession itself makes it impossible for Camille to accept his frigid front as the ‘truth’. “You act as if emotions don’t exist,” she accuses him, “yet you love music” Stéphane in turn claims that far from concealing his feelings he is revealing his true — unfeeling — self, a stalemate which culminates in her sexual approach and his rejection.
Though Camille is right to diagnose Stéphane’s ‘openness’ as a particularly convoluted form of concealment, the unknowable self behind it — beautifully suggested in Daniel Auteuil’s paradoxically sympathetic performance — makes condemnation impossible. This carefully constructed sense of moral ambiguity is sharpened by his sudden, startling euthanasia of Lachaume — a compassionate, courageous act immoral in conventional terms, but in its context cathartic.
Emmanuelle Béart’s dignity and beauty notwithstanding, the most highly charged scenes here are scattered with danger signs — cars swerve to avoid Camille and Stéphane on two occasions, and one intense interchange is conducted with another couple rowing passionately in the background. But if Sautet’s symphony seems pessimistic about the fragility of human relations, it compensates with an exceptionally rich and subtle study of a freeze-dried male psyche.
Sight and Sound, May 1993