Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s Love Week at The A.V. Club, we’re recommending movies about love triangles.
It’s difficult to maintain a love triangle when one of the three legs politely declines to participate, preferring to remain a line segment. Set in the rarefied world of violin restoration, Claude Sautet’s magnificently chilly 1992 “romance” Un Cœur En Hiver (also known as A Heart In Winter) sets up a fairly conventional scenario, introducing two longtime friends and business partners whose cozy routine gets shaken up when both desire the same woman. Maxime (André Dussollier) is the wheeler and dealer, schmoozing clients with practiced charm; he’s the one who initially becomes involved with Camille (Emmanuelle Béart), an up-and-coming violinist whose instrument has a slightly warped bridge. Repairing such flaws is the province of Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil), who runs a tiny workshop tucked in the back of Maxime’s office space and inhabits an equally tiny room adjacent to it. For whatever reason—rarely has that phrase been more apt—Stéphane decides to pursue Camille himself, in his own peculiar and passive way, despite his loyalty to Maxime. It’s the Postman Always Rings Twice template, with one crucial difference: Nothing ever happens, because Stéphane—for whatever reason—doesn’t actually want Camille, even as she becomes obsessed with him.
What’s going on in this guy’s head? Sautet kicks off the film with a canny bit of misdirection, having Stéphane speak to us directly in first-person voice-over narration. That technique primes us for a character study, but Stéphane talks almost entirely about Maxime, revealing little about himself, and the narration vanishes after the first couple of minutes, never to return. That leaves us with Auteuil’s astonishingly recessive, self-contained performance, which is the human equivalent of a “no entrance” sign. Most of Un Cœur En Hiver consists of Auteuil impassively looking at others, his expression unreadable. Stéphane isn’t emotionless or robotic, by any means—we see warmth, curiosity, genuine interest, compassion—but Auteuil almost never signals the character’s ostensibly subterranean feelings (as, say, Anthony Hopkins so skillfully does in The Remains Of The Day). Only once, when Maxime shows him the apartment he plans to move into with Camille, does Stéphane briefly appear stricken. He tells Maxime that it must be the paint fumes from the renovation in progress—an explanation that most viewers will naturally perceive as a variation on “Boy, sure is dusty in here.” But this film’s unique genius is that it might actually be the fumes.
This maddening ambiguity wouldn’t work without Béart providing all of the fiery passion that Auteuil carefully withholds. (The two had long been romantically involved in real life, for a touch of extratextual irony; they finally got married the following year, then divorced a few years later.) Camille spends much of the film rehearsing for a recording session in which she plays several Ravel compositions, and Béart reportedly spent a year learning how to convincingly mime her parts; if nothing else, she succeeds in matching Ravel’s intensity, both with the violin and without.
Among other things, Camille serves as a stand-in for the audience, refusing to accept Stéphane’s calm insistence that he and Maxime aren’t friends, that he doesn’t love Camille despite his apparent interest in her, that he’s simply not built for turmoil. “You aren’t like that,” she replies. “Nobody is. It doesn’t happen. It’s a pose.” And we’re inclined to agree, because we’ve been conditioned not to accept clear, simple explanations for a fictional character’s behavior, especially when those explanations seem contrary to our understanding of how people behave. Sautet provides a few possible clues, most notably a subplot about Stéphane’s old violin teacher (Maurice Garrel), who’s terminally ill. It’s even possible to interpret Maxime, rather than Camille, as the object of Stéphane’s deeply buried affection. Even as we strive to peer beyond the surface, though, it remains disturbingly credible that in this particular, offbeat instance, a placid and genial surface is all there is.