Un Coeur en hiver (Claude Sautet, 1992) opens with the music of Maurice Ravel’s sensual Trio, and fades against the image of an expressionless Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) repairing a violin in a dark studio. Stephane calls to Maxim (André Dussollier), and the latter instinctively knows that his assistance is needed in reassembling the instrument. No further interaction is required. It is an appropriate introduction to the enigmatic Stephane, a methodical craftsman of fine musical instruments who, in his intractable quest for perfection, abandoned his violin instruction rather than accept mediocrity. A subsequent conversation with his mentor (Jean-Claude Bouillaud) reveals that it was not Stephane’s limited technical skills that caused his disillusionment, but something entirely different. As Stephane narrates with uninflected detachment on the suitability of his business partnership with the affable and gregarious Maxim, Stephane’s emotional withdrawal – his figurative heart in winter – gradually comes into focus.
One evening, Maxim breaks the news of his impending divorce and admits to Stephane that he has fallen in love with their new client, a violinist named Camille Kessler (Emmanuelle Béart). As Maxim, Camille, and her agent, Regine (Brigitte Catillon), leave the restaurant, Stephane remarks to his friend, Helene (Élisabeth Bourgine), that Maxim has been “touched by grace”. Stephane’s attraction to Camille is apparent, although he does not articulate it. He watches Maxim and Camille with the same objective demeanor that betrays little of his thoughts. Does he observe out of jealousy for a woman he does not have, or is he intrigued by a romantic relationship of which he is incapable?
Noticing a string buzz on her violin shortly before a scheduled recording, Camille takes her instrument to Stephane, who listens intently, and repairs the immediate problem. Stephane appears genuinely interested in her music, although he is evasive and vague. Camille interprets his distance as a sign of gradual, intellectual seduction. When Stephane is invited to attend a rehearsal, his intense gaze distracts Camille, and she repeatedly loses her place on the sheet music. However, Stephane’s singular focus may not have been on Camille herself, but on her violin. Early one morning, Stephane calls on Camille in order to suggest a slight adjustment that would improve the clarity of her instrument. Camille, in turn, sees Stephane’s meticulous persistence as a sign of his attraction to her, and invites him to a closed rehearsal.
But Stephane’s guarded, enigmatic behavior prevents any real, tangible connection. He is a social voyeur – observing people around him, listening quietly to their life stories – yet is incapable of true intimacy. As Stephane continues to regard Camille with alternating episodes of undivided attention and calculated aloofness, Camille becomes increasingly drawn to him. Stephane, incapable of proceeding beyond a certain emotional level, inevitably causes friction, and jeopardizes his professional and personal relationships with Maxim and Camille.
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Claude Sautet often explored the unresolved nature of triangular relationships. In Les Choses de la Vie (1969), Pierre’s (Michel Piccoli) accident becomes a conduit for re-evaluating his relationships with his wife and his mistress. In Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1995), personal inhibition and fear of rejection prevent Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) and Arnaud (Michel Serrault) from pursuing their tacit romantic connection, despite Nelly’s failing marriage. They exchange knowing glances and carefully selected words, but inevitably, never reveal what is in their hearts. These films depict the process of discovery, as the characters find themselves captivated by the novelty of falling in love at the expense of an emotional investment in maintaining their current relationships. In Un Coeur en hiver, the “incompleteness” lies solely within Stephane’s ambivalent behavior, and it is his underlying ambiguity that creates Camille’s perceived dilemma.
Sautet’s use of the musical trio is a dynamic element of the film’s thematic development. Within the framework of the instrumental trio – the piano, the cello, and the violin – is a symbiotic relationship. Alone, each characteristic voice seems empty and incomplete. Similarly, Stephane and Maxim’s relationship is also one of reciprocity. Maxim entertains clients and arranges delicate transactions, but does not have the technical expertise to perform the necessary repairs. On the other hand, as Maxim relies on Stephane for his livelihood, Stephane, in turn, lives vicariously through Maxim. Their relationship provides him some semblance of intimacy without the emotional toll or commitment. The introduction of Camille into their lives seemingly fills the emotional void of Stephane and Maxim’s friendship, but also causes disharmony in their familiar ritual.
As in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1961), the musical selection is a reflection of the triadic affair that develops. In Jules and Jim, Catherine’s (Jeanne Moreau) lyrically meandering, cyclically structured song epitomizes the emotional ambivalence that she feels towards the shy, devoted Jules (Oskar Werner) and charming, uninhibited Jim (Henri Serre). In the film, it is Catherine who is the impenetrable enigma: the indecisive siren who will lure Jules and Jim to heartbreak and tragedy. However, while Catherine transforms herself to suit her relationships, Stephane does not hide his true character. Rather, it is Camille who creates an illusion of him – an image with whom she falls in love.
Similarly, the selection of the Ravel Sonatas and the Trio effectively captures the essence of the triangular relationship in Un Coeur en hiver. With equal measures of subdued longing and passionate intensity, the soundtrack embodies Stephane and Camille’s increasing attraction and emotional vacillation. When Camille delivers her finest performance at the recording studio, the moment proves to be a turning point, not only in her professional career, but in her personal life as well. In essence, her performance becomes a validation of her connection with Stephane. Stephane has perfected the precious instrument entrusted to him, and now Camille has realized its exquisite potential. The passionate music becomes a recorded testament of Stephane and Camille’s creative union – an intimate expression of their unrealized bond.
Un Coeur en hiver is a sublimely sensual and provocative film on the complexity of human relationships. Through the technically brilliant, but emotionally flawed Stephane, Sautet presents a fascinating character examination of the subtle, yet profoundly relevant dichotomy between mechanical creation and art, polite conversation and intimacy, attraction and love. In chronicling the lives of imperfect people, Claude Sautet compassionately captures the quiet longing of the soul, and in the process, composes a subtle and graceful contemporary ballad of the human heart.