Un cœur en hiver (1992) was Claude Sautet’s penultimate film. With this and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995) Sautet had reached the pinnacle of his powers as a filmmaker. Sautet’s work was a lifelong investigation into romance and the Romantic. His films sought out the various incarnations and iterations of love as it existed in his day. Formally, Sautet was a neo-classicist, revitalizing the dramatic traditions of Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls, and John M. Stahl for a post-modern cinema.
Un cœur en hiver charts the effects of a love triangle on its three participants, with particular attention to Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil). Stéphane and Maxime (André Dussollier) repair and construct high-end violins for the great musicians of Europe. All of that begins to change when Maxime leaves his wife to begin a relationship with a much younger concert violinist, Camille (Emmanuelle Béart). Upon meeting there is an instant attraction between Stéphane and Camille. However, Stéphane refuses to act on these emotions, remaining a remote observer until he has driven both Maxime and Camille out of his life.
At one point Stéphane comments too Camille that music is the “trucs de rêves”. Her ability to conjure “dreams” is the same as to “live life”. Stéphane lives only through music and through the dreams of others. He is the ultimate spectator, he is the cinema defined. Like the cinema, Stéphane can feel nothing, he can only provoke feelings in others and, likewise, have those feelings projected back onto him. He is entirely self contained, remote, insular, and cold. Only in watching and being seen does Stéphane ever really exist, and this is the tragedy of Un cœur en hiver.
Un cœur en hiver itself finds moments of the purest cinema and in these instances it almost appears as though Stéphane begins to feel. Music is central to Un cœur en hiver for obvious reasons, and Sautet approaches the synthesis of sound and image as a poet would. After the death of Maxime and Stéphane’s mentor there is a sequence devoid of dialogue where the story is told only with a few images accompanied by a string quartet. It’s a moment that could have been found in Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927). In this sequence the whole film enters briefly into Stéphane’s inner world.
One can see immediately why Emmanuelle Béart was Sautet’s Romy Schneider for the nineties. She is always charismatic, and here one finds her exploring even greater, more subtle depths than in La Belle Noiseuse (1991) or J’embrasse pas (1991). Her performances in these earlier films were freer and more organic, but in Un cœur en hiver Béart is the glue of the narrative, the conduit through which all of the other performances must pass. Sautet’s duo if films with Béart are his most fulfilling and realized features. It’s a shame that they couldn’t have done a few more films together.