If Malice is a good example of Hollywood's idea of suspense -- tracking down a mysterious psychopath -- Un coeur en hiver aspires to a higher order of thriller that the best art explores: unraveling the mysteries of the human heart. That is the puzzle presented by Stephane, a violin maker played to sober, obsessive perfection by Daniel Auteuil in Claude Sautet's bittersweet confection, Un coeur en hiver (A Heart in Winter). Stephane is an enigma, a workaholic with little time for existential dilemmas. When he finds a sick friend, Lachaume, languishing in bed begging wordlessly to be put out of his misery, Stephane does not hesitate. It doesn't matter that Lachaume taught Stephane to play the violin and in so doing introduced him to the instrument that would become the focus of his life's work. Apparently bypassing normal human emotions, he calmly loads a syringe and administers a lethal injection as easily as if he were plucking a string on a Stradivarius. Goodbye, old friend. Rest in peace.
Stephane is the central character in the most recent cinematic import based on that quintessentially French plot device, the love triangle. He's a luthier dedicated to his craft of violin repair and as seemingly immune to romantic love as a Vulcan. His boss Maxime, portrayed by Andre Dussollier, owns the exclusive shop where Stephane plies his trade and is the closest thing to a friend that Stephane has. Emmanuelle Beart is Camille, the hauntingly beautiful and obscenely talented violinist with whom Maxime is having an affair. All three actors deliver the goods. Dussollier is gregarious but classy; Auteuil is wound tighter than a violin string; and Beart is even more ravishing than she was in the title role of 1985's Manon of the Spring, if that's possible. Small-scale, character-driven romances demand quality acting to keep the audience in their seats; this ensemble is downright sublime.
Maxime breaks the news to Stephane that he has decided to leave his wife of many years to move into an apartment with Camille. Stephane is nonchalant until his boss instructs him to repair the doe-eyed beauty's instrument in time for a fast-approaching recording session. Hearing her play and observing her closely for the first time, something happens to Stephane, although neither he nor the audience can be quite sure what it is. Has he fallen in love with Camille? Stephane will spend the rest of the movie vociferously denying the possibility, while at the same time leaving clues that his words are at odds with his heart. "In writing, it's often beautiful," he explains to a friend when asked his opinion of love. Yet upon visiting the cozy flat that Maxime is preparing for Camille, Stephane becomes physically ill.
For her part, Camille is instantly attracted to the intense, mysterious artisan in a way that blows her affection for Maxime out of the water. At first, she loses her composure and cannot play her violin when Stephane is in the vicinity; later she reaches the point where her playing is listless and melancholy without him. Camille falls hard, and Stephane knows it. But he refuses to reciprocate, or at least he refuses to admit that the feeling is mutual. Either he's the world champion of denial, or he really doesn't love her. Regardless, Camille is devastated. The film's strength evolves naturally from its subtle revelations; figuring out Stephane's true emotions is the key, every nuance of his carefully chosen speech a potential clue. Does he care about Camille? Is he really out to screw his boss? Does he just have a cruel streak? You're never certain until the final five minutes.
A warning for the Beavis and Butt-Head crowd: Un coeur en hiver is in French with English subtitles and contains dozens of shockingly graphic scenes of classical violinists in action. Like last winter's Tous les matins du monde, it's a small film but a beautifully realized one with elegant string music as both an important element of the narrative and the soundtrack. Savor it.