Friday, August 22, 2008

Un coeur en hiver (A Heart in Winter) by Claude Sautet

Emotional Glaciation, which Michael Haneke illustrates with clinical precision in his films, finds an almost motherly treatment in this beautiful 1992 film by Claude Sautet. I came to this film through the recommendation of one of my favorite critics: Mike D'Angelo, who writes for the Las Vegas Weekly.

There are films which show love as a romantic abstraction, and which become blockbusters. And then there are films like Blue, Scenes from a Marriage, Five Easy Pieces, Remains of the Day, and A Heart in Winter, which are treasured by those who come to see their own tussles with love mirrored in them.

Camille is a musician, whose life is nothing if not the expression of her self. Stephane is a craftsman, whose life is the pursuit of flawlessness in mechanisms and who remains aloof from the mire of "relationships". They fall in love, despite themselves, as if pulled towards each other by a something palpable yet undefinable. And just as Stephane is in danger of losing his nourishing certainties, he withdraws again into his shell, almost shell-shocked and surprised at himself.

Why he does that, and how he struggles against it, is the theme of the film. Stephane, played by Daniel Auteuil, conveys to perfection a blend of vulnerability, innocence, opacity, warmth, coldness, aloofness, sensitivity and inner turmoil. And Camille, played by Emmanuelle BĂ©art, is resplendent in the portrayal of emotions and the seasons of love with her face and her eyes.

Whether Stephane feels inadequate, or undeserving of Camille, whether he has experienced pain in the past that he doesn't wish to experience again, whether he, the perfectionist, wants to find an impossibly flawless love in the real world, whether he is attracted to women at all, whether he scorns marriage and commitment, whether he is a sociopath or just a closeted ego, ..., the viewer is forced to ponder all these hues of him. He may be complicated, but it is not difficult to observe his complexity.

Portraying all this in a mere 100 minutes of an exquisite montage of images is no small feat. Claude Sautet made only a handful of films in his career, and this film is his crown.

The film also raises deep questions about abandonment and reserve. Camille is heedless in her passions, Stephane is almost too heedful. One loses her self in love, the other loses love to save his self. And towards the end, when Camille says in a harrowing moment: "Now I am the empty one", one comes to witness how the experience of pain may make us "mature", but also, more devoid of the spontaneity of life.

Stephane is self-aware, he is extremely observant, but it is only when he hurts the people closest to him (and when he realizes that sometimes love expresses itself in strange ways), does his glacier start melting.

As Krishnamurti once said in words to the effect: Life is a stream, some of us form a puddle on the bank to protect ourselves from the constant change, and that stagnating puddle is our death. We want to live, but want to live safely. But is that life?

To choose life, with the pains it offers? Or Death, with the so-called serenity it promises?

To choose life is to proclaim that one wants to grow beyond pain, that happiness is possible in life. To choose isolation and seclusion is to admit defeat, and is an escape into oneself.

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