'Un Coeur en Hiver': Complex chills, no cheap thrills

August 06, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Who knows the mystery of the winter heart? Not even Claude Sautet, the gifted French filmmaker who explores its hurtfulness in "Un Coeur en Hiver," his exquisite new film opening today at the Rotunda.

The winter heart belongs to Stephane, played by the great Daniel Auteuil. Stephane is a craftsman of extraordinary skill, a world-class luthier: He fixes broken violins. Not just any violins, either, but those mournful vessels of aged resonance and mahogany echo that only the truly great violinists can master. His ear is precise: As the player soars through a passage from Ravel, he can tell if a string is loose or a bridge needs tightening or refinishing. It's as though he enters the music to decode its pathologies; but in so doing, he seems to leave everything else behind.

Stephane lives an ascetic life behind the shop, seemingly content. He has a woman friend and a colleague, his partner Maxim, and an admiring apprentice, Brice. He appears not to need sex or attention or fame or respect; he's lost in his world of sounds, a monument to male repression. His face largely mute, his body language as controlled as an engineer's, not a wasted motion, not a rogue flicker of feeling, nothing.

But then at lunch the proud Maxim points out his new love, a beautiful young violinist named Camille (Emmanuelle Beart), and for no reason save his own perversity of temperament, Stephane sets out to destroy not only Maxim's and Camille's life but his own as well.

Here's a film that's so far beyond the reach of the American film industry it makes you want to laugh. It studies emotional states unknown to Hollywood, turning on the muted resentment

introverts feel for extroverts, and also, quite possibly, the destructive, nearly nihilistic self-loathing introverts feel for themselves. Try and find room for that in "Jurassic Park."

Maxim (Andre Dussollier) is smooth, sexual, smug, extremely confident, a cosmopolitan to his fingertips; Stephane is so muted he's all but crippled. Yet Stephane manages to bring Maxim's empire down. His "seduction" of Camille is a brilliant campaign, but it transpires in a zone of subtlety unknown to most cinemas except the French. He succeeds by alternating his attentions, from lavish adoration to the coldest of disdain, and the beautiful Camille, to whom no one has probably ever said no before, is utterly befuddled and ultimately captured by the skillfully mixed signals.

Yet sex and fidelity aren't the issues. Stephane's triumph won't be carnal; it transcends sex. He wants something more than her body; he wants to destroy her, out of fear of his own unworthiness and hatred for his own limits. Thus, in the movie's coldest act, he issues the ultimate No to this most beautiful and yearning of women, and destroys her and his own chances at happiness. Yet in so doing, he probably feels a shard of emotion unlike any he's ever felt. It's crazy kamikaze love, a love that does not embrace but perversely destroys the ship of emotion. Sautet can't figure it out either, but he can certainly make you believe in what is the unhappiest happy ending you ever saw.

Most well-known in this country for "Cesar et Rosalie" in 1972, Sautet directs the film as if he's Stephane. Set against the rarefied world of classical music (soundtrack by Ravel!), the movie has a cold fascination to it, but ultimately no answers. One is left to speculate on the true motive of strange Stephane and his destructive tendencies. It's a mystery that, if never solved, will linger in the mind for hours and days.

"Un Coeur en Hiver"

Starring Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart

Directed by Claude Sautet

Released by October Films



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