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Un Coeur en Hiver (1992) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • Beautiful violin virtuoso Camille has two obsessions: the music of Ravel, and a friend of her husband's who crafts violins. But his heart seems to be as cold as her playing is passionate.

  • You should mention that there is a hidden irony in this film. The character Stephan is based on the personality of the composer Maurice Ravel, who, like Stephan, had a heart in winter and was unable to form a romantic attachment to a woman.

  • Stephane and Maxime run a well-respected violin making and repair business. When man-about-town Maxime falls in love with violin virtuoso Camille, Stephane - whose only attachment is a platonic one with a bookshop owner - takes his own interest in this new girl in Maxime's life and in her music-making. Camille gradually becomes attracted to him, but finds his cold lack of response by turns puzzling and irritating. Bit by bit the odd ménage-à-trois becomes set on a collision course.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • "Un Coeur en Hiver" translates as "A Heart in Winter". The three main characters are: the enigmatic violin craftsman (luthier) Stéphane (Daniel Auteuil); the charismatic violin shop owner Maxime (André Dussollier); and the impossibly beautiful violinist Camille (Emmanuelle Béart). Stéphane and Maxime are men perhaps in their early forties. Camille is a women in her late twenties. The age difference is significant if not unseamly.

    The overriding questions the movie poses are "Whose heart is 'in winter'?" and "Why?"

    Stéphane is so unemotional that it is easy to assume that the title refers to him. See the end for a spolier that explains why his heart is this way.

    In the typical French style, the plot/dialogue is fairly minimalist, leaving long stretches during which the viewer can ponder the existential questions it poses. The fact that it is in French with English subtitles makes it harder for the English viewer to catch all the subtleties, while simultaneously heightening the sense of being unconnected, especially to Stéphane.

    The plot is almost non-existent. Stéphane works for Maxime in his high-end violin repair shop. Camille is a concert violinist who Maxime woos both as a customer and a love interest. Stéphane watches Maxime and Camille become a couple, with implied jealousy. In a series of interactions over the tuning/repair of the violin, we see Camille's interest in Stéphane grow. Maxime and Stéphane seem to be polar opposites. Maxime is a charismatic bon vivant businessman, and Stéphane seems to be a painfully shy, meticulous craftsman.

    In a typical formula movie, the plot would go as follows: Girl falls for handsome/rich/athletic/shallow alpha man. Girls meets shy/kind/thoughtful underdog loser. Girl learns to love underdog who vanquishes the alpha male in a final showdown by using his wit to defeat brawn.

    In this movie, girl (Camille) falls for handsome bon vivant (Maxime). Girl then meets shy underdog (Stéphane). Girl learns to love the underdog. So far, perfectly understandable to American audiences. Then, against formula, Stéphane does not return Camille's affections. He leads her on, then eventually rejects her, breaking her heart.

    Maxime, knowing that Camille is devastated and would have preferred to leave him for Stéphane (if Stéphane was interested), has a decision to make. Does he reject Camille who has betrayed him? No, instead Maxime is outraged not with Camille but with Stéphane. He curses Stéphane and slaps him in the face, not for stealing his lover but for rejecting her.

    In the end, Camille returns to Maxime. Maxime accepts this because he loves Camille and is willing to be her second choice. Camille accepts this because her only choices are unrequited love for Stéphane, or being alone. Instead she choses the comfort/respect of a perhaps loveless relationship with Maxime.

    And what of Stéphane? What has he chosen and why?

    Except for a short interlude earlier in the move where we see Stéphane visit an old friend/mentor and play briefly with a child, the reader of this review now knows as much as anyone who has seen the movie. This leaves viewers largely intrigued but perplexed, so I'll lay it out for you.

    Maxime comes across as a good guy even though he left his wife for Camille. Camille is beautiful, young, talented, intelligent, kind, etc. You can't fault Maxime for falling in love with Camille, although perhaps in a French society used to mistresses, he is seen as a cad for leaving his wife. Is his heart "in winter" because he coldly left his wife, or because he knows Camille will never truly love him? No, his heart is warm and generous. He does not abandon Camille even though she has betrayed him. He loves her. If his heart was cold/calculating at the beginning of the movie, he certainly has learned his lesson. His heart is broken, but no longer cold.

    Camille in the end is "damaged goods." She seems genuinely unaware of the possibility that a man, any man, would reject her. She retreats to Maxime's comforting hug as a child would retreat to her father. Her heart, so vital at the outset of the movie is now broken and cold, perhaps forever. Perhaps she will find eventual love with Maxime, but they have a long, difficult road ahead, and it is unclear if she will ever heal or ever love Maxime. He seems content to wait an eternity, frozen in time if not in temperature.

    And now we come back to Stéphane. He was aloof and enigmatic at the beginning of the movie. He was calculating and manipulative in the middle. And at the end, he is portrayed as being unbelievably cruel or cold. People assume that any man who could ignore Camille (Emmanuelle Béart) is incapable of love. She is truly a breath-taking beauty. So why is Stéphane's heart "in winter"? It is not in winter because he is unable to love Camille, and viewers who missed this need to go back and watch the entire movie.

    SPOILER ALERT:

    Stéphane is in love with Maxime (yes, gay).

    At the beginning of the movie, he is pining for Maxime who is married and sees Stéphane as solely a platonic friend. Stéphane accepts that Maxime is married and won't leave his wife. When Maxime leaves his wife for Camille, Stéphane is heartbroken, knowing he will likely never be able to love Maxime openly. It isn't even entirely clear if Maxime is aware of Stéphane's love for him. He is aware of it intellectually, but clearly doesn't understand/appreciate a homosexual man's love for another man. (In this way, it is mirrored by Camille not understanding how Stéphane, or any man, could fail to love her.)

    Stéphane clearly decides that he cannot bear to see Maxime with Camille. He sets out to tear them apart. Stéphane treats Camille as if she is totally disposable, because he only wants to hurt Maxime. This is indeed very cold to Camille, and she is completeely unaware of Stéphane's game. Even Maxime seems to think that Stéphane is in love with Camille. Only in the end when Stéphane rejects Camille does Maxime understand both the cruel manipulation by Stéphane, and the pain that Stéphane must be in. Maxime lashes out at Stéphane for breaking Camille's heart, but in so doing has to recognize that he too broke Stéphane's heart.

    And there you have it, the inexplicable explained.

    For evidence that my hypothesis is correct, and that Maxime is neither unaware nor innocent, listen carefully at the beginning of the movie (narrated by Maxime). He says, in essence, that he leads Stéphane on enough to keep this master craftsman working in his violin shop rather than opening his own business. Maxime knows that Stéphane loves him, but being heterosexual, he shows no real understanding of what that means.

    And with this in mind, it begins to all make sense. Now we understand why Stéphane seduces Camille but rejects her. As any heterosexual male will attest, if you are not gay, you would fall for Camille (Emmanuelle Béart) in an instant. Instead, Stéphane is really after Maxime, and sees Camille as either a rival or an inanimate object (like a beautiful china doll). Stéphane fails to appreciate that Camille is a living person whose heart he will break. His heart is too cold to think of anything but exacting revenge on Maxime.

    As further proof, there is a subtle parallel thread in which Camille's music coach (a female) is in love with Camille, but Camille just glosses over the issue neither confronting nor rejecting a person she views only professionally/platonically.

    For the record, I'm straight, so I'm not just reading these themes into the movie for my own sake. I asked a friend who's gay whether he agreed with my take on the movie, and he thought I was crazy.

    Now go re-watch the movie, and judge for yourself.

    I'm pretty sure I'm 100% right. No other interpretation is even remotely sensible.

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