This film holds a bit of a special place for me because it was the first time I picked up an underlying homoerotic element all on my own, which even my smarter friends didn't see at first. It was also the first time I saw Daniel Auteil and Emmanuelle Beart [who were married at the time of filming]. And I am pleased to report that not only does the film still stand up after all these years, it is in fact better than ever.
We open by meeting Maxime and Stephane, who work together as artisans who painstakingly repair violins. There is a voice-over from Stephane that introduces their relationship, that they have worked together so long they don't need words, that Maxime is a bit of a ladies' man but never settles down, that, during racquetball, Maxime "so loves to win, it becomes a pleasure to lose," and that Maxime never asks a single question about Stephane's life, which, Stephane says, "is fine by me."
The two men are having lunch in a cafe when Maxime breaks to Stephane the news that he is seeing someone seriously. And it's that gorgeous violin player over there, Camille, played by Beart. Now these guys are ostensibly just business partners, so you have to wonder why this personal revelation should be treated with gravity, and consideration that Stephane might have intense feelings. It is instead treated as though they are explicitly in a romantic relationship, and Stephane stares at Camille across the room with a mortified intensity. And, as we will find out through the movie, something intense is happening within him.
Stephane meets Camille and is charged to repair her violin. He stares intently at her during rehearsal, to the point where she starts messing up her performance. He returns her violin, and she's happy with the sound. Stephane visits his aunt and uncle in the country, who he is close to, and they say that he is known never to express an opinion or emotion. He calls Camille and asks if he can come by and further adjust her instrument. She and her trio are rehearsing, and Stephane suggests they play the piece at a slower tempo. They do, and here's an example of how this movie, and its fine actors, let their faces do the work, as we watch Beart's face and she that she finds the slower tempo more successful, we hear the piece open up new realms of expression, and see Beart be moved at Stephane's powers of perception. All without dialogue.
Camille is in the midst of making a new recording of Ravel sonatas. Maxime leaves on a business trip, and Stephane goes right over to the studio. They decide to have a short drink during a break, and run through a sudden rainstorm to a cafe. This is another example of the magic that seems to be unique to French films, as essentially nothing happens in the entire scene, yet when it is over, we can recognize it as a crucial turning point in the film. They speak about the fact that Stephane remains neutral and unemotional, saying nothing of consequence, not wanting to talk about himself, while his stares at Camille and his feeling for music belie deep reserves of emotion and sensitivity. And we can see Camille falling into the delusion many women enter: that this unemotional guy can and will melt and open up if they only had the right woman. While they are talking, a couple seated behind them in the cafe has a little tiff, with the woman sudenly saying "Don't touch me!" and a glass breaking. Then, Camille notes, the man is crying--which mirrors her own thoughts about this reserved man who can be brought to expressing his emotion--and then the couple reconcile. When Camille returns to the recording session, we see the couple in the background, now gazing lovingly at each other.
SPOILERS > > >
Stephane doesn't return to hear her recording, as he said he would. After a few days, she calls him, and he is cool, simply saying that he's been busy. This further enflames her. She and Maxime run into Stephane at the cafe, where she has a moment alone with him, and asks why he has been avoiding her. He claims to not know what she's talking about. She describes Maxime as his friend, and he says that despite their long partnership, he has never regarded Maxime as a friend. When told Maxime thinks of him as a friend, not just a business partner, Stephane replies "I can't prevent that."
That night Maxime can tell she's distant, and she soon confesses that she's emotionally wrapped up in Stephane. You have to love this movie that we didn't have to wait until they actually had sex or kissed passionately at the Arab bazaar or something, no, it acknowledges the importance of the slow turning of Camille's emotions. Maxime stays mum about it, and asks Stephane to go see Camille on the last day of recording, while he is out of town.
He does, and she blows off the celebratory dinner in her honor--and about ten people expecting to go fete her--in order to run off with Stephane, who has no idea about her plans. In the parked car, she tells him that she loves him and is ready to be with him. He tells her that he has no such feelings for her. He says he seduced her without loving her, "probably to get back at Maxime. That's what I decided." She is wounded badly, and runs from the car. That night, Stephane drives out to the house of his aunt and uncle, but stops outside, hearing them fighting. She is hovering over him and badgering him about what he can and cannot do, because of his health, while he says "we aren't tied together." It presents a worst-case scenario to Stephane about what commitment might mean.
Maxime returns home to find Camille has locked herself in her room and is drunk. We see her applying makeup--quite low-key, but in contrast to her prior, natural appearance, shockingly garish. She finds Stephane at the cafe, and then THEY create a scene, like the couple when they were in the cafe before. She spits on him. Maxime shows up and slaps Stephane! If you were waiting for fisticuffs, well, there you were. Once more Stephane drives out to his aunt and uncle's house, and this time wakes in the middle of the night to find his uncle has had a seizure, and his aunt tenderly caring for him. This represents the positive side of long-term commitment, one Stephane is beginning to realize he has cut himself off from.
He goes to Camille some time later to find her now mostly over it and a touch chilly to him. He says he realizes that she is right, and that in reserving his emotion "I destroy only myself." Camille is going on tour, and she and Maxime will marry. Then we find out that Stephane's only friend, Helene, has met a boyfriend, but she will still see Stephane "sometimes." Even the apprentice at Stephane's new shop is getting married. The point: everyone is pairing up except Stephane, and his social circle is growing more and more isolated. When Maxime asks him how he is, Stephane responds: "I'm getting old."
At the end of the film, Camille again runs into Stephane at the cafe. We can see that she now takes a reserved, pitying attitude toward him. She says of Maxime "You loved him," and Stephane responds "The only person I ever could, I've long thought." She and Maxime leave, and the last shot is Stephane alone in the cafe, shot through a window that shows reflections of the people on the street outside: as if to say that he himself is just a reflection, not substance, and life is passing him by right outside while he remains isolated and alone.
< < < SPOILERS END
So it's very subtle, and not even the main point of the film, but what we have is a love story between the two men, in which Stephane, in his way, is in love with Maxime and wrapped up in their partnership/relationship. Up until now, Stephane has been the attentive servant, like his aunt, caring for and supporting Maxime, who obliges, in his way, by never entering into any serious relationships. So when Maxime is suddenly smitten with this woman, Stephane is shocked at first and then decides to seriously screw them up, out of what we can imagine to be a jealous anger. It seems that what allows Camille to finally get beyond it is to understand that Stephane loved Maxime; then it makes sense to her, where previously she was quite bewildered. So are they gay? Is it a gay film? No--and those are simplistic questions. It's about this homoerotic relationship that is quite present, but is only barely conscious to its participants.
It is more explicitly about this guy who is fairly emotionally disturbed, and his dawning consciousness toward the end that it is not ultimately that productive--"I destroy only myself." The movie heads more into this direction after the revelation about the affair, and while it's well done, I confess it's a little less interesting [and a great deal more sentimental] than the sociopathic-homo aspects. But the title of the movie translates as "A Heart in Winter," so that subtle sentimentality seems to be the very point.
Which is okay, because everything about it is so good. The performances, while all low-key, are also all brilliant, especially Beart's. There's just something so natural and rich about these performances, I kept thinking that almost any five minutes here could put nearly all American Oscar-winning performances to shame. There's just something about American acting that shouts "Look at me! I'm acting now! LOOK at how very seriously I am acting!" when here it just comes off as par for the course. The few scenes here that hinge on Beart's ability to convey thoughts and emotional states with just her face are refreshing and impressive, and not something I think we're going to see Julia Roberts do soon.
Speaking of that, sorting the IMDb reviews by "Hated It" reveals an interesting though familiar schism, which is those people who believe that "nothing is happening" when people are standing in a room and talking, and thus the entire film is "boring." What can one say, it's a reading comprehension problem. If you believe that the only things that "happen" in a movie is action, you would watch the scene where Camille rehearses at the slower tempo and see just endless droning on, or watch the crucial conversation in the cafe and just see a lot of blabbing. It's just one of those dividing lines in humanity, people who are attuned to emotional nuances and conversational events, and those who need to see some action take place to believe that something has happened. But I'm pleased to report they represent only about 25% of the IMDb reviews.
Anyway, if you're gay and want to see a very subtly homo love triange that's also a wonderful film with a lot of great music, here you go. If you're straight and you just want to see a wonderful film with a lot of great music, here YOU go. Yeah, definitely slow and talky, but also rich and resonant and beautiful. And you get to look at Emmanuelle Beart, which isn't going to hurt anybody.
You sure should, it's a rich and beautiful film.