Not Quite Love at First Sight

Op Art

"Un Coeur En Hiver" is an indefatigably French movie, filled with minute conversation, coolly beautiful women, pensive silences and an impassioned polemic on the death of high art. There is also always a bottle or two of mineral water lying about, so much so that you wonder if somebody somewhere isn't getting paid. The film relies in part on the appealing possibilities of several settings: the workshop of an esteemed instrument-making partnership, the country home of an elderly couple, and several Parisian cafes. The restrained, somber-faced Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) is the behind-the-scenes brains of the business that he shares with the suave Maxim (Andre Dussollier), and from the outset we are assured of the contrast the former's dedicated work ethic poses to the flightiness of the latter. Maxim, Stephane tells us, "has preferences but no obsessions," hinting darkly at the fascinating demons that might lurk within his own self. But these demons are never really unleashed; instead, the two friends are shown working and playing together as squash partners and stylistic opposites. When we are introduced through Stephane's eyes to Maxim's new lover and client Camille (Emanuelle Beart), a young violinist, we are meant, perhaps, to be scathed by her beauty. After all, she automatically enchants every- one (male and female) in the film before shehas even picked up her instrument. Of course, onceshe does that, she has them all doubly transfixedand smoking with renewed aesthetic ferocity.

Camille's violin is acting up, and Stephane'scareful repairs under her petulant orderseventually seem to work some sort of spell on herand she develops an erotic fascination for him.Somewhere along the way, however, Stephane dropsout of the camp of Camille-worshippers (we don'tknow what triggers his nonchalance; his reserveddemeanor suggests somehow that it was there tobegin with and that he was just going along witheveryone else) and this infuriates her and leadsher to smear garish cosmetics on her face, quaff awhole bottle of gin, and make a humiliating scene.Everyone else gets irritated with his stoicism aswell, and Maxim is put in the ludicrous positionof having to punch his rival for not sleeping withhis lover. The most significant subplot involvesthe physical decline of one of Camille's agingformer teachers, who tellingly describes the youngCamille as "a smooth, hard little girl" withunderlying passions. Stephane's eventual role inthe death of this man, underplayed as it is,focuses our puzzlement about him: who is this guy,and why doesn't he have any feelings?

There are lots of other people's feelingsfloating around in, even splattered onto, thisfilm: we are shown various couples spatting,making up, Camille and Maxim exchanging tenderkisses, but the camera passes coldly over all ofthese as if Stephane were guiding it, and there islittle explanation given implicitly or otherwisefor this--repeated shots of his long-nosed profilesomehow aren't quite enough to justify hiscold-heartedness or make it interesting.Eventually, Stephane paws gingerly at regret, butsince we never knew what motivated him in thefirst place, it's not really compelling. Camille'soutrage at his disinterest is something of a trap,since it forces the audience to regard her as therecipient of desire that she has not really wonfrom us--what's really striking is how muchyounger she is than everybody else, and how no onethinks this particularly remarkable. The movie isfilled with wistful talk about discipline andmildly frenzied chamber music sessions; hard towatch if you can recognize that they're faking it,but the music (Ravel) is an unusual and beautifulenough choice to maintain the properly troubledmood throughout. Unfortunately, this music seemsintended to intensify or perhaps clarify what isotherwise spoken quite prosaically, and this is adifficult task. Stephane is given to uttering suchwinners as "I like watching you talk," "All booksare about love," and "Music is dreams." Of course,he does this in French, and everyone doeseverything else in French, but that is somehow notenough to make the Franco-talkiness of "Un Coeuren Hiver"-- or its silences--as meaningful as theycould be