A heart in winter

emmanuelle beartA Heart in Winter (Un Coeur en hiver) is a 1991 film by Claude Sautet (Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, 1995, Sautet’s wonderful last film). It stars Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Béart and André Dussolier. The film is a portrayal of the inner life of the character played by Auteuil, an instrument maker called Stephane, and when you watch the film you cannot but pay tribute to the talents of Auteuil, probably the greatest French actor of his generation.

Watching the film requires a shift in the expectations of the viewer. What you see and hear is almost banal, as three charming and gifted characters create and experience the tragedy of a love triangle. But the film is more importantly a character study, and the film maker expects the viewer to follow Stephane’s inner life just as one does for example become aware of the personal politics of a board meeting, where what is said might not have an accurate bearing on what is negotiated, or when in the company of an estranged couple, both friends, where what is expressed bears reference to a past trauma. Body language tells a more complete story than dialogue in this film; we as English speakers have a more difficult job than those who share the French culture in deciphering what is going on, but, thanks to brilliant acting, it can be done.

Most critics have described Stephane as emotionally void, unable to respond to the people in his life. Perhaps they have been too influenced by the fact that this is what Stephane at one point tells Camille (Béart). One responds to the meaning of body language in a personal way, and in what I say there is nothing definitive, merely my interpretation of what I see. Others will see differently perhaps.

The first clue lies in the music, by Ravel, heard throughout the film. We see Stephane’s response, exquisitely accurate and, in my view, deeply passionate. Stephane is a man moved by music as few of us are but as more of us should be. We learn he was an accomplished violin student but gave up playing. His strongest emotional bond is with his music teacher, who provides Stephane with the nearest thing he has to a home. The love between the two men is evident. Listen to the subtly different way the teacher talks to Stephane and to Maxime, Stephane’s friend and business partner (Dussolier) who is another former student. Stephane is a man with both a powerful response to music and a deep, deep respect for it. This sensitivity has led him to undervalue his own ability as an interpreter. He has ceased to play his violin.

But when he hears Camille, an aspiring concert violinist and the girlfriend of Maxime, play at a recording session, this passionate response, controlled as it is, attracts Camille powerfully. By contrast, Maxime’s response to music is an intellectual one. He appreciates, while Stephane is moved. Stephane has not been able to stay away from Camille, even though he knows this is a love he shouldn’t pursue.

Camille, who, like most performers, leads an intensely disciplined life of music practice, rehearsal and concert performance, is sustained by her own love of music. She knows what music means to Stephane because it means as much to her. Her recognition of this quality in Stephane turns to love. But here she meets a rebuff. Maxime has affairs (which he hides from his wife) and is prepared to leave his wife for Camille (“it’s better for her – his wife – as well” he tries to justify), but this is not the kind of behaviour Stephane can emulate. His love and respect for his friend and business partner Maxime is too great for him to betray him. He tells Camille he doesn’t love her, that he cannot love at all, that Maxime is not a friend, merely a convenience for him. She knows intuitively this isn’t true. We, the viewers, have half a film to show us it isn’t true.

Stephane is a man with powerful emotional responses, who feels love and respect for his friends and colleagues, and for music. When there is a conflict it is always his emotional response Stephane seeks to control. He plays it in a sensitive way, like a musical instrument. Perhaps he is too humble. He is shown as a genuinely good man, one who truly cares for others. In one scene Camille watches Stephane instruct and guide his apprentice. He acts with both love and with discipline, and Camille watches, absorbed in what she sees. It is an important building block in their relationship.

The resolution of the romantic triangle comes as Stephane, deeply divided by two conflicting emotions, loyalty to Maxime, passion for Camille, rebuffs Camille. She is terribly hurt. She thinks it shameful for Stephane to deny his love for her.

Perhaps women, who too often have been excluded from the central place in a man’s heart because it is taken by some value which he shares with other men, will sympathise with this scorn more than male viewers. I felt Camille was not able to see the principles that moved Stephane to withhold his love. Ironically it is Camille’s shame and hurt that enable Stephane to acknowledge the importance of the love he feels, but when he comes to try and explain, it is too late. Camille has exhausted her emotion, and feels nothing for Stephane any more. She is the shallower character. Time is not on Stephane’s side: it is a dissonance.

And the film ends with Stephane, alone, his heart in winter. His teacher has died, his partner Maxime pursues his business alone, Camille goes back to Maxime because she has nowhere else to go. Stephane is left with his deep love, and for the moment no-one to bestow it on.

We all wear masks, and what we tell people about ourselves bears little relationship to who we are. But our masks are transparent to anyone who will see through them, for those who will take the trouble to look. What we all want is love, but sometimes it is so very, very hard to ask for it.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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