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A Post-Modern Romance?

Claude Sautet's Un Coeur en Hiver is a story about rejecting love and - in the end - acknowledging its claims.

by Alan A. Stone

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 Stephane (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 Stephane'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 Stephane, 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 Stephane'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.

Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) and Maxime (Andre 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 Stephane has mysterious depth and social insensitivity, and his qualities are highlighted by the way Sautet plays the characters off against each other. Stephane 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. Stephane 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. Stephane, 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 Stephane'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, Stephane 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 Stephane 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 Stephane'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 Stephane 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 Stephane, because he wanted to protect the beautiful and talented Camille (Emmanuelle Beart) - 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. Stephane is less than gracious in his response to these revelations.

A standard psychoanalytic take on his reaction might see Stephane 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, Stephane looks across the restaurant at the beautiful Camille, the new love who is sitting with her agent, Regine, a woman of mannish appearance. Stephane 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 affair.

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 Stephane'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. Stephane 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 Stephane.

If in relationships someone has to have the dominant hand, Maxime seems to have it over Stephane. He wins their racquet ball games and has dismissed Stephane as a possible competitor in the game of love. Stephane, 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 Stephane 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 Stephane envies the less virtuous man.

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. Stephane, seemingly insensitive and unaware of himself, may have similar feelings but takes a different course.

It would be wrong to say that he purposefully sets out to seduce Camille. Stephane never acts with obvious, identifiable, motives. He is like Camus's existential protagonist in The Stranger who kills for no reason. So Stephane 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, Stephane, 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 Beart 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 Stephane. 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 Stephane 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 they belong.

This teacher is the one person whom Stephane 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 Stephane 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 Stephane can find and fix the flaw in her violin. It is impossible not to sense the instant electricity between Stephane 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. Stephane 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 Beart, husband and wife, in the roles of Stephane and Camille.

Camille reveals her love for Stephane 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 Stephane to attend the Ravel recording. Camille, inspired by her passion and believing it to be fully reciprocated by the seemingly worshipful Stephane, 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 Stephane, 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 Stephane rejects Camille's offer of love Sautet surprises and defeats our expectations. The knee-jerk psychological reaction is that Stephane 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.

Stephane 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. Stephane might be one of them. But in the end, neither Stephane'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, Stephane 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 Stephane 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 Stephane, she leaves the restaurant. Maxime replaces her and, standing over Stephane 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 Stephane 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.

Stephane'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. Stephane goes on with his vocation but he is almost alone in the world. Does he understand what has happened?

Stephane 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 Stephane 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 Stephane 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 Stephane'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 Stephane 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. Stephane, the man without sentiments, does what is necessary. He enters the room and no words are spoken. The dying man looks at Stephane and then looks to the bedside table where the medications are. Stephane, 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 Stephane 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 Stephane'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 Stephane that the absence of passion is a disease of human nature.

The final question that Sautet asks is whether Stephane 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 Stephane sitting in a restaurant talking with Maxime. Camille arrives and Maxime goes to get the car - they are a couple again. Briefly alone with Stephane, Camille asks him about his feelings for the dead man. Stephane'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. Stephane sits alone, a man who now too late believes that love and music are part of the same dream.

Originally published in the December 1993/ January 1994 issue of Boston Review

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