Boston Review, 1993
A Post-Modern Romance?
Claude Sautet's Un Coeur
en Hiver is a story about rejecting love and in the
end acknowledging its claims.
Un Coeur en Hiver, written and directed
by Claude Sautet, is the negation of a love story and in our post-modern
world negation can have the deepest power of instruction. Not that
this marvelous film is didactic or ponderous. Like the fragile violins
that Stéphane (the protagonist) repairs, the movie is delicate
and beautifully crafted. It is also an uncompromisingly sophisticated
work that never condescends to its audience.
Many moviegoers will want to see this film as
an old fashioned psychological study of character to explain
Stéphane's refusal of love as the natural outcome of his
neurotic hang-ups. Sautet has invited such speculation by making
a film which is like one of those figures in elementary psychology
textbooks. Viewed one way you see a vase, viewed another way you
see two witches; it is virtually impossible to see witches and vase
at the same time. If you want to see both, you must go back and
forth between them.
Sautet has put together a modern psychological
drama and a medieval morality play and you need to go back and forth
to capture the sophisticated aesthetics of his film. His double
vision narrative takes us beyond determinist psychology and
into the moral adventure of life. Except for Stéphane, all
of his characters are recognizable personalities; if we cannot predict
their behavior, we can certainly understand it after the fact. They
all belong in the psychological drama. But Stéphane's personality
is an unsolvable mystery and one cannot say about him that his psychology
is his destiny. His character undercuts and challenges settled conventions
of thought and gives this movie its post-modern spin. It does not,
however, spin into radical relativism or nihilism. Sautet has rediscovered
the possibility of love by negating it.
Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil) and Maxime (André
Dussollier) are partners in the violin business. Maxime sophisticated,
worldly, ingratiating, sensitive to the moods of others has
all the small-talk that reduces social tension. The enigmatic Stéphane
has mysterious depth and social insensitivity, and his qualities
are highlighted by the way Sautet plays the characters off against
each other. Stéphane is less than handsome, but his face
is intriguing and Sautet's prolonged close ups make the most of
its many surprising possibilities.
The partners buy, sell, repair, and construct
the finest stringed instruments for a carriage trade of musicians.
Maxime is the classic outside man: expansive, engaging, and expert
at dealing with the temperamental artists who need to be reassured
about their treasured instruments. Stéphane is the classic
inside man: the master craftsman who can find and repair the slightest
flaws because he fully understands the music as well as the instruments.
The French can make waiting on tables a high art
form and, more than any other people, seem to have preserved the
tradition of dignified artisanry. Stéphane, once a serious
student violinist, is obviously a master craftsman. But only Sautet's
French imagination would allow us to recognize and celebrate the
heroic qualities of a man in his vocation.
There is something definitely monachal about Stéphane's
life. His immaculate button down shirts are his clerical collar.
Unmarried, he lives in rooms behind the shop, apparently desiring
no pleasures beyond the satisfactions of his work. Most important,
Stéphane seems to have no need for other people and no dreams
of love. Music is his only dream. Maxime by contrast is a sybarite
who happily mixes business with the pleasures of the flesh. From
the outset, the audience can see that the partnership between these
men is a perfect fit.
The film begins with the meticulous Stéphane
gluing the top of a violin in place. He utters Maxime's name. Maxime,
needing no instruction, arrives from the front office at the correct
moment to screw the wooden vises in place. The partners work together,
play racquetball together, and seem to have an enviable friendship.
But not, as we shall learn, by Stéphane's standards. He does
not reciprocate Maxime's apparent affection.
Maxime is living in the fast track: married, having
affairs, travelling all over Europe, hobnobbing with concert artists.
But now, as he tells Stéphane over dinner in a restaurant,
something important has happened he is in love.
Many of the scenes in Sautet's movie take place
in this same restaurant. If home and family are the center of ordinary
people's lives, Sautet's characters have no center. No one seems
to have children or to be bound by family obligation. The restaurant
is their public place for private conversations.
At such dinners in the past, Maxime had no compunction
about describing his extra-marital affairs. But for him this is
a different kind of conversation. He has kept this affair secret,
even from Stéphane, because he wanted to protect the beautiful
and talented Camille (Emmanuelle Béart) a young concert
violinist. Maxime has been touched by grace; he admires as well
as loves Camille and has now decided to leave his wife for her.
Stéphane is less than gracious in his response to these revelations.
A standard psychoanalytic take on his reaction
might see Stéphane as a jilted lover a woman has come
between two men with a latent homosexual attachment. Sautet has
written the screenplay to permit such ideas to surface. Thus, Stéphane
looks across the restaurant at the beautiful Camille, the new love
who is sitting with her agent, Regine, a woman of mannish appearance.
Stéphane pointedly asks Maxime whether he has broken up a
couple. Whatever the latent or actual erotic nature of these male
and female relationships, both will be fractured by the new love
Each of the intimate relationships in this film
presents a variation on the theme of non-reciprocal love. The musical
metaphor is worth stressing because this film is not only about
making music; it seems to have been conceived and constructed as
a musical composition. For example, the theme of couples overheard
quarreling is played out again and again in variations among the
major and minor characters.
If Stéphane's question about breaking up
the couple is less than gracious, Maxime quickly defuses the tension
by insisting that the agent, Regine, is the best friend of Camille's
mother. Stéphane borders on rudeness as he presses Maxime
about how his wife is dealing with this new turn of events. But
Maxime refuses to be offended. With worldly wisdom he declares that
in relationships someone always gets hurt. What Maxime does not
imagine as he prepares to move in with Camille, is that he will
be the one to get hurt by Stéphane.
If in relationships someone has to have the dominant
hand, Maxime seems to have it over Stéphane. He wins their
racquet ball games and has dismissed Stéphane as a possible
competitor in the game of love. Stéphane, though previously
willing to take a back seat to Maxime, somehow cannot accept the
new arrangement. The most striking aspect of this situation is that
the beautiful Camille is a promising concert violinist. She is a
high priestess in the temple of music where the monastic Stéphane
worships. Indeed each of the characters in this movie worships in
that same temple where art is God and music is prayer. Maxime, in
possessing Camille, has found a place closer to the altar and perhaps,
for the first time, the devout Stéphane envies the less virtuous
The relationship between Camille and Regine is
another variation on the theme of non-reciprocal love. Regine, the
strong older woman, has taken Camille, the young artist, under her
wing, cultivated her talent, promoted her career, and lovingly fed
her ego. But the relationship which once nourished Camille now suffocates
her. She wants to break out and assert her independence. Although
Maxime gives her more freedom than Regine had, she has found in
him an older man who will care for her in much the same parenting
way. It is change without growth and we soon see that it too is
a non-reciprocal love that has not fully engaged her.
Regine knows that she has been rejected. She rankles
with resentment and shows her feelings of hurt and betrayal. Whether
or not Regine was (as Sautet suggests) Camille's lover, Regine certainly
behaves as if she has been jilted. Stéphane, seemingly insensitive
and unaware of himself, may have similar feelings but takes a different
It would be wrong to say that he purposefully
sets out to seduce Camille. Stéphane never acts with obvious,
identifiable, motives. He is like Camus's existential protagonist
in The Stranger who kills for no reason. So Stéphane makes
this beautiful woman love him for no reason, rejects her for no
reason, and then has every reason to suffer for his actions. But
the subtle Sautet stops far short of Camus. His hero, Stéphane,
has reasons and motives. They just do not seem sufficient to explain
his actions and in that insufficiency Sautet creates the moral space
that gives his fragile movie its profundity.
Emmanuelle Béart was splendidly naked in
her recent film La Belle Noiseuse. But Sautet keeps Camille's body
covered and his discipline makes her expressive face seem even more
beautiful. Camille, as it turns out, had studied as a child with
the same violin teacher as both Maxime and Stéphane. Scenes
at that violin teacher's home in the French countryside are interwoven
like musical passages with long stretches of urban scenes in Paris.
But the home, beautiful in its setting of trees, is no conventional
family residence. When the main characters gather there for a dinner
party and discussion of art, it seems that the elderly teacher's
middle-aged companion is his cook and nurse but not his wife. It
is another non-reciprocal relationship and Stéphane will
overhear their desperate quarrels. Later sequences show the country
house filled with children, one of whom is somehow related to the
woman. We might wonder if the child is their bastard. Sautet seems
to delight in such ambiguity. But the children are in his movie
more for decorative purposes and to lighten the mood than because
This teacher is the one person whom Stéphane
seems to admire. He is a man of intellect, faithful to the church
of music, and exacting in his judgment. The teacher, who once taught
Camille, describes to Stéphane the young girl he had known
as hard and smooth with a considerable temperament behind the hardness.
No longer a student, Camille is at a critical moment in her career.
She is preparing to record the Ravel Sonata and trio. Though her
technical excellence is not in doubt, Camille has yet to prove that
she can go beyond hard and smooth to artistry.
Maxime brings her to the shop so that Stéphane
can find and fix the flaw in her violin. It is impossible not to
sense the instant electricity between Stéphane and Camille.
She is intrigued by his intensity, his exacting standards, his emotional
unavailability. He fixes her instrument and then attends her rehearsal
to listen. His presence seems to disturb her concentration. He leaves
but returns of his own accord at a later time and with a subtle
adjustment the master craftsman further improves the violin's tone.
Camille quickly becomes dependent on his presence. Stéphane
has become the mechanical and spiritual catalyst for her artistry.
Having made himself necessary, he absents himself and she
is hooked, like a woman who falls in love with her psychiatrist.
She needs him, loves him, must have him. We begin to glimpse the
temperament that will boil over in the scenes to come. Sautet's
sophisticated taste and subtlety are present everywhere in this
movie, and it surely was inspiration to cast Auteuil and Béart,
husband and wife, in the roles of Stéphane and Camille.
Camille reveals her love for Stéphane to
Maxime who, though incredulous, remains a man of the world in the
best sense. He is prepared to step aside, at least temporarily.
Indeed, knowing Camille's intense feelings, he asks Stéphane
to attend the Ravel recording. Camille, inspired by her passion
and believing it to be fully reciprocated by the seemingly worshipful
Stéphane, plays Ravel's ecstatic music as never before; it
is a triumph and everyone at the recording knows it. Filled with
confidence, Camille wants to consummate her love. But in her moment
of glory, when she surrenders herself body and soul to Stéphane,
he refuses her.
For many people love holds the only promise of
transcendence. And romantic (yes sexual) love is the closest most
of us come to realizing the fulfillment of that promise. So when
Stéphane rejects Camille's offer of love Sautet surprises
and defeats our expectations. The knee-jerk psychological reaction
is that Stéphane has to be crazy. Our dismay must be allayed
by denying his sanity. But in the morality play, to which he belongs,
his mysterious negation of love can illuminate our own hopes and
fears as would-be lovers.
Stéphane does not refuse out of loyalty
to his friend, Maxime. He had told Camille in an earlier conversation
that Maxime was not his friend only his partner. Nor does
the refusal grow out of his love for some other woman, as Camille
imagines. He has given his only woman friend no promise of love.
Deep in their heart of hearts some people wonder if they are even
capable of love. Stéphane might be one of them. But in the
end, neither Stéphane's character nor the web of relationships
in which he and Camille are involved is sufficient to explain his
refusal of this proud and beautiful woman. Like obstinate men who
refuse to pray because they do not believe in God, Stéphane
refuses Camille because he does not believe in love. He is a man
of rectitude, but without faith. He has therefore lost an opportunity
in the moral adventure of his life and one that we are made
to feel may have been his best and only chance.
The desolate Camille goes on a drunken binge and
the next day confronts Stéphane in one of Sautet's restaurant
scenes. There the high temperament we glimpsed earlier explodes
in a public display of angry confrontation. This is the ultimate
overheard quarrel. Everyone in the restaurant is forced to be a
party to Camille's crescendo. After shaming herself and humiliating
Stéphane, she leaves the restaurant. Maxime replaces her
and, standing over Stéphane like an outraged husband, slaps
him in the face and sends him crashing to the floor.
Auteuil plays the perfect bewildered victim in
this public scene and it is slightly bewildering. After all,
Maxime is furious with Stéphane because he did not sleep
with the woman Maxime loves and, of course, under the circumstances
Maxime is right to be furious. Sautet has created one of those rare
moments when comedy and tragedy converge.
Stéphane's rejection of Camille ends his
partnership with Maxime. His other woman friend who has been his
only companion announces that she has found a man who cares for
her. Stéphane goes on with his vocation but he is almost
alone in the world. Does he understand what has happened?
Stéphane openly acknowledges all of his
possible psychological motives to Camille from sexual hang-ups
to deviousness but only to demonstrate that they are insufficient.
He goes to the wise old violin teacher who raises all the other
more existential reasons from a need to demystify love to
the possibility that Stéphane might have felt inadequate.
But those reasons too are insufficient and the teacher and his former
student do not solve the mystery of the insufficiency. Indeed, Sautet
wants to preserve the notion that there is no complete explanation
- what he has left open is moral choice and lost opportunity. If
Stéphane is not neurotic, then Un Coeur
en Hiver raises questions about how the rest of us make our
choices in the moral adventure of life.
Sautet shows his audience early in the movie that
Stéphane's relationship with the teacher is of great significance
to him a son's admiring love for the ideal father. Toward
the end of the movie Stéphane is called back to the teacher's
country home. The man is dying a painful death. Neither the woman
who cares for him, nor Maxime who had already arrived, has the will
to put him out of his misery. Stéphane, the man without sentiments,
does what is necessary. He enters the room and no words are spoken.
The dying man looks at Stéphane and then looks to the bedside
table where the medications are. Stéphane, the ultimate craftsman,
approaches the task at hand and completes it with the practiced
skill of a surgeon.
One might think that this death scene a
Doctor Kevorkian moment is gratuitous, not really connected
to the central dynamic of the film. It is also quite implausible
that Stéphane would be adept with an intravenous syringe.
Yet, thematically, it ties everything together and prepares for
the coda. The death of a loved one reminds us all of our mortality,
of missed opportunities for the expression of love, of what is most
precious in the moral adventure of life. In Stéphane's decisive
action, we see the power of a will unmoved by sentiment and for
that very reason lacking some human quality. Kant thought that passion
was a disease of reason but Sautet shows us through Stéphane
that the absence of passion is a disease of human nature.
The final question that Sautet asks is whether
Stéphane has been changed by these experiences. The answer
is so subtle that it took this reviewer two viewings of the movie
to catch it. The last scene, a coda, fittingly shows Stéphane
sitting in a restaurant talking with Maxime. Camille arrives and
Maxime goes to get the car they are a couple again. Briefly
alone with Stéphane, Camille asks him about his feelings
for the dead man. Stéphane's reply, wonderfully nuanced and
appropriate to the delicate but rich tones of the film, is that
he used to think the teacher was the only person he loved. I take
it he now realizes that he loved Camille and that he loved his friend
Maxime as well. Camille tenderly kisses him goodbye and drives off
with Maxime. She knows that the miraculous moment is irretrievably
lost. Stéphane sits alone, a man who now too late believes
that love and music are part of the same dream.
by Alan A. Stone,
Copyright Boston Review, 1993
Originally published in the December 1993/ January 1994 issue of