In Un Coeur en Hiver, the late Claude Sautet looks into the heart of Stephane, a master violin craftsman (Daniel Auteuil), and finds only ice. Stephane is an observer of life, not a participant. The film reveals the consequences of his emotional isolation, of what he has to give up in order to maintain his solitude.
Un Coeur en Hiver is as far from a typical Hollywood romance as Casablanca is from L'Avventura. The film is almost a revisionist portrayal of the usual debonair French romantic lover. While the lovely sonatas and trios of Maurice Ravel form a haunting background, there is a lifeless quality to Stephane and ennui is a palpable presence throughout.
Stephane seems ready to leap into a passionate relationship with a beautiful young violinist, Camille (Emmanuelle Beart) after Maxim, his partner for many years (also in love with Camille), introduces her to Stephane. Stephane, however, is unable to relate to Maxim's friendship or to his growing attraction to Camille and becomes distant and manipulative.
Held back by his reluctance to take risks, his relationship with Camille provides him with the forms of intimacy but without the substance. No pat psychological interpretation is provided but is left to the viewer to interpret. The camera is reserved and intimate. For the most part, emotions are conveyed through glances, expressions, and silences rather than dialogue.
The scene where Camille finally explodes out of frustration over Stephane's emotional distance, however, is powerful, yet is not enough to shake the reluctant lover from his hiding place. At a restaurant, Camille tells Stephanie, "He says he likes music because "music is dreams". "Poor jerk", she blurts out, "You know nothing about dreams". Pointing to his heart, she says, "There is nothing in there, nothing. No imagination, no heart, no balls". Stephane simply sits there with a half grin on his face. I could really feel Camille's frustration in trying to pluck fruit from a barren tree.
Auteuil's outstanding performance makes him a likable figure, a really sweet guy but a very sad one. I felt repeatedly like shaking him from his lethargy and exposing him to joy and the rhythmic beauty of life, perhaps adding a little Mozart to his Ravel.
At the end, however, there is some character development. Stephane finally recognizes that "there is something lifeless inside of me." As his friends depart, he is left sitting alone at a restaurant table, poignantly feeling his loneliness. Perhaps this insight is the beginning of his transformation. A very sad film but beautifully realized.