Un Coeur en Hiver (France, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In addition to being employer and employee, Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) and Maxime (Andre Dussollier) share an intimate friendship. Stephane works for Maxime at an exclusive Paris violin repair shop. One evening, while the two are at dinner, Maxime announces that he has fallen in love with a new client, Camille Kessler (Emmanuelle Beart). The affair is so serious that Maxime has left his wife and intends to move in with Camille. Upon meeting, Stephane and Camille are immediately intrigued by each other. Yet, even as Stephane fights to maintain his own emotional equilibrium, for the first time in her life, Camille loses hers, and her simple attraction to Stephane becomes an obsession.

Often foreign films, and French films in particular, are thought of by the average movie-goer as being exceptionally (and some would say "overly") intellectual. This could not be more true than for Un Coeur en Hiver, yet this picture feeds more than just the mind. The rich musical score (Ravel) is a feast for the ears, and the exceptional performances of the principals lead to several emotionally-potent moments. In the final analysis, Un Coeur en Hiver satisfies completely.

Distilled to its basic essence, the movie is a story that the French do so well: the romantic triangle. Beyond the premise, however, there is nothing ordinary about Un Coeur en Hiver. From the point that Stephane and Camille meet, much of what happens goes contrary to expectations. Theirs is definitely not a typical tale of clandestine love. Rather, it is an examination of the price of emotional honesty and emotional isolation.

Oddly enough, it's Stephane, the character with the most screen time, who remains an enigma to the audience. Even though we come to identify with him, and understand some of what he does, the depth of his emotions often remains unclear. The last scene of the movie explicitly reveals part of the truth, but for much about Stephane, the viewer must reach his or her own conclusions. Daniel Auteuil, one of France's leading actors, plays his role with a deft understanding of this sort of emotionally closed-off individual. His is a difficult performance, given the ambiguity surrounding Stephane, but Auteuil has found the perfect balance.

Camille is no less a complicated character, but her feelings are simpler to read. She hides nothing, and when she recognizes that she loves Stephane, there is no doubt in her mind -- or ours -- of the truth. Especially noteworthy is the manner in which Camille's sudden, intense passion for Stephane intertwines, and at times conflicts with, her lifelong love of music. The stunning Emmanuelle Beart gives an astonishing, unaffected performance. Emotion is often displayed in the most subtle gestures, expressions, and vocal inflections. Before beginning production of Un Coeur en Hiver, Beart had never played the violin. After the film's release in France, director Claude Sautet claimed that she "fooled everyone" with her "perfect motions" (violinist Jean-Jacques Kantorow does the actual playing). Not only are her hand movements proficient, but the look of rapture on her face as she loses herself in the music of Ravel is an example of how accomplished Beart's acting style is.

Un Coeur en Hiver is yet another case of real-life chemistry translating well to the screen. At the time when this picture was before the cameras, Beart and Auteuil were companions away from their acting, and the spark of this intensity, even unfulfilled as it is here, is too obvious to miss.

In Un Coeur en Hiver, strong characters, intelligent writing, and exquisite performances combine to draw the audience into the film's deep, churning currents. Those attracted only to Hollywood's shallow waters may find this picture too intimidating, but for anyone who enjoys a more complex cinematic experience, Un Coeur en Hiver offers an alternative.

Un Coeur en Hiver (France, 1992)

Ranked #74 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1