"A Heart in Winter" ("Un coeur en hiver")
Directed by Claude Sautet
Written by Claude Sautet and Yves Ulmann
With Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Béart, André Dussolier, and others
At first sight "A Heart in Winter" is the story of a love triangle,
a variation of the basic and often filmed competition of two men for the affection
of a woman. At second sight, however, the film is a treatment of the philosophical
question "What is love?" Unlike typical Hollywood movies, "A
Heart in Winter" is not based on such popular premises as: love is the
answer to everything, sexual consummation is the ultimate closure, or monogamous
commitments are tantamount to happy endings. Sautet's film subverts any such
clichés by wondering about the nature of what people call "love,"
by showing, for example, how much more weighty a passing glance can be than
wild cohabitation, or by exploring the possibility that a quiet, solitary life
can be as rich and deep as one that is crowded by emotional demands and relentless
Mike Lorefice observes in his review of the film: "’Un coeur en hiver’ is the total opposite of the Hollywood romance. It shows love as a problem rather than a solution"(1). And Roger Ebert suggests in his discussion of the same work: "As a general rule, the characters in French films seem more grownup than those in American films. They do not consider love and sex as a teenager might, as the prizes in life" (2). It is, indeed, one of the characteristics of cultures shaped by Hollywood that people keep thinking in terms of adolescents long after they have grown into adults, and it is one of the functions of films like "A Heart in Winter" to encourage an understanding of love and related matters that transcends the hackneyed simplicity to which consumers of commercial entertainment products are regularly treated.
"A Heart in Winter" begins by depicting the relationship between Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) and Maxime (André Dussolier), partners in a small but prestigious company that produces and repairs violins. Maxime is the boss of the outfit, and he takes care of the commercial and client-relation aspects of the business. Stephane works mostly in the backrooms of the shop; he is the undisputed master craftsman who produces and services instruments of the highest quality. Both men have a complete understanding of each other's work, however, and their cooperation is so smooth that they hardly have to use words in their every-day communications. They like the division of labor that they have developed, and they appreciate the difference of their personalities as well. Maxime is a man of the world. He is married, but he also has amorous affairs. He travels all over Europe to see and negotiate with important clients, and he enjoys reporting about his various exploits to his less enterprising partner.
Stephane stays close to the shop; he even lives in the back of the business rooms. His accommodations are minimal—“Spartan,” as Maxime calls them. Stephane lives mostly an inner life. He dislikes traveling, and he rarely makes efforts to get intimate with women. He loves his work and music, and he listens with complete understanding and absorption to the performances and concerts that his clients give. In his spare time he repairs precious antiques, antiques that are related to the history of music. He does not mind that Maxime never asks what he does during his time off. Stephane protects his privacy as much as he enjoys his solitude.
The two men regularly play racket ball together, and Maxime likes to win. Stephane does not mind losing to him. He appreciates Maxim's competitive enthusiasm as much as he delights in the game. Stephane plays for the sake of playing, not the satisfaction of victory. He generally has a quiet, contemplative attitude toward things.
Occasionally the two also lunch together, and it is during one of these lunches that Maxime tells Stephane that something important has happened to him. "What is it?" Stephane asks without moving a muscle in his face. "I will tell you when you wipe that grin off your face," Maxime replies. "It is gone," Stephane assures him with the same deadpan expression. "I have fallen in love," Maxime announces, and by way of a short exchange we learn that he has been seeing Camille, an up-and-coming violinist, that this affair has put an end to his moribund marriage, and that he plans to live with his new love in an apartment that he has recently rented. The reason why he has not mentioned any of this to Stephane before, he explains, is his regard for Camille: she had been somewhat "nervous" about their relationship, and Maxime did not want to "push" her too hard. Maxime knows that Camille's primary commitment is to her art and career, and he is happy to accommodate her wishes.
During this conversation Camille (Emmanuelle Béart) and her agent Régine (Brigitte Catillon) are having lunch just a few tables away. When they get up to leave, Maxime joins them, obviously doting on the violinist. On their way out Camille casts a short but interested glance at Stephane; her lover's lunch companion has not escaped her attention, and he is not a matter of indifference to her. During following encounters her interest increases, as does the reciprocal interest of Stephane. During a visit Stephane asks his former music teacher Lachaume (Maurice Garrell) about Camille. Lachaume remembers her as a "smooth, hard girl" who keeps a certain distance between herself and other people, but who also has some "real temperament" behind the façade of her artistic discipline. When Camille and her agent come to the shop the next day to consult with Stephane about some defect in her violin, the latter gives her competent professional advice, but he is also moved by her beauty and presence.
Camille's interest in Stephane comes clearly to the surface during a rehearsal of Camille and two colleagues who are working on Maurice Ravel's “Sonata and Trio” in preparation for a major recording. Although she is a superb player she keeps getting certain passages wrong. A number of professionally involved persons are attending the rehearsal, but it is Stephane's presence that distracts her. Stephane looks at her, and she looks at him--while trying to read the music at the same time. She finally asks for a glass of water, and Stephane quietly excuses himself and leaves.
At her bookstore Stephane chats with his friend Hélène (Elizabeth Bowgine). "I am beginning to think that she hates me," he tells her, referring to his distracting presence at Camille's rehearsal. "And you sort of enjoy it," Hélène tells him. "It's an interesting development," Stephane admits. Looking at the stacks of newly arrived books Hélène is shelving, he wonders aloud that almost all these works seem to deal with the topic of love, "even the cook books." "Do you find that obscene?" Hélène asks. "No," he assures her, "the literary description of love is often very beautiful."
During a dinner party at Lachaume's house in the country, host and guests get into a discussion about elitism and democracy in art. The question is whether everything that people like should be considered art, or only that which is recognized as serious art by a small number of competent experts. After a while everyone notices that Stephane does not take much part in the lively debate, and that he does not hold a position. When asked about it he admits that he has no opinion in the matter, and that he thinks that both parties to the dispute seem to be right. The arguments, he says, are canceling each other out. "According to you we might as well shut up and be silent," Lachaume remarks with an amused smirk. "That is a tempting thought," Stephan replies.
Camille is annoyed by Stephane’s apparent cop-out. "By talking we do, of course, run the risk of being wrong," she sarcastically remarks. "It’ s always much easier to keep quiet and appear intelligent." "Perhaps I am just afraid," Stephan admits. "He is just trying to be nice," Lachaume proposes. "Definitely," Stephan affirms. Most of the guests like Stephane, but some also resent his reticence, his tendency to withdraw from the verbal and emotional give and take of the people around him. They sense that in spite of his polite and friendly demeanor he is a disquieting stranger who is not at home in their various positions and involvement.
During one of the next days Camille stops by at the shop to pick up Maxime for dinner. Maxime is on the phone, so Camille walks over to where Stephane supervises the repair work of Brice (Stanislas Carre Malberg). She watches Stephane's instructions intently, and when he is finished she follows him to his quarters, where he offers her a drink. They have a talk about Camille's difficult relationship with her mentor and agent Régine, and Stephane is happy to analyze and verbalize the violinist's troubles. Next day during lunch Hélène asks him whether he is in love with Camille. After some hesitation he answers: "I don't think so. No." "Well," Hélène remarks, "she's in love with Maxime, anyway," and Stephane agrees. But then he adds: "I had the impression, though, that she would have preferred to have dinner with me rather than with Maxime." When Hélène looks at him curiously, he qualifies: "Just an impression."
Next we see Maxime and Stephane playing racket ball. Breaking his usual routine, Stephane tricks Maxime with a short ball and wins the game. Maxime has no time for a re-match because he has to catch a plane. "I'll let you savor your victory," he tells his partner with a smile. While he is out of town Stephane unexpectedly appears at Camille's rehearsal and invites her for a drink. Pleasantly surprised Camille accepts and dashes off with him to a nearby bistro. It is a fairly reckless interruption of her and her colleagues' rehearsal, and she gets wet in the pouring rain and is almost run over by a car. She does not mind any of this: she is happy about the lunch and pleasant chat with Stephane. She forgets time, and one of the musicians has to knock at the window of the bistro to call her back to the rehearsal.
Stephane does not follow up his initial move, however, although he had promised Camille to call and see her again. He even seems to avoid her. Although it would ordinarily be part of his professional routine to do so, he does not attend her rehearsals anymore. When she finally calls him he blandly tells her that he has been very busy. Camille becomes rather disturbed and despondent, and Maxime as well as Régine begin to worry about her. Stephane does find time to see a movie with Hélène and a suitor of hers. Standing in line at the movie house Hélène explains to Stephane that "a woman rarely retreats once she has come forward as far as Camille has." But Stephane pretends that everything is fine; Camille, after all, has stopped calling him. He dismisses Hélène's assertion that the stopped calls do not mean anything: "You overestimate my power of attraction," he tells her. "No, I don't," she replies tartly, "and neither do you." It seems quite clear to Hélène that Stephane is playing some sort of game.
Maxime shows Stephane the apartment that he has rented. Workmen are remodeling the place. After pointing out the planned use of the various rooms in his and Camille's future, Maxime gives Camille a call. Listening to the telephone conversation, Stephane suddenly feels ill, and he has to sit down. He looks spaced out, and Maxime has to bring him a glass of water. Apparently there is much more to Stephane's feelings for Camille than he admits--even to himself.
During a chance meeting at a restaurant Camille reproaches Stephane for avoiding her. He denies that he is doing any such thing; he insists that it was his professional obligations that kept him away from her. She ignores his protestations and wants to know why he behaves the way he does: "You live as if feelings did not exist." "What do you want?" he replies. "Some childhood trauma? Some sexual frustration? Some disappointment regarding my vocation?" Stephane implies that such psychological stories or problems are irrelevant, and that it is simply his chosen way of life to be without the passions and feelings that motivate other people. He has no use for the usual amorous relationships, nor does he have any need for intimate friends, and that is that. Camille, however, does not believe him. Angrily she asserts: "Such a thing does not exist. Nobody is that way. This is nothing but a pose."
When Maxime joins them at the table he can see that Camille is suffering, and he realizes what the cause of her misery is. At home the two lovers have a talk in which Camille informs Maxime about her feelings for Stephane, and about everything that has happened--and not happened. They decide to break up. The next morning Maxime calls from the airport to ask Stephan to attend Camille's upcoming recording session. Like a true gentleman he pretends to be asking for a favor, but in reality he does not want to stand between Camille and Stephane; he is helping Camille to get closer to his partner.
Camille's performance at the studio is outstanding; the recording session is an overwhelming success. Everyone present is awed and full of praise. Nobody doubts that a dazzling career lies ahead of the young violinist.
When Stephane congratulates her she asks whether he has his car with him. When he says that he does, she immediately makes arrangements to ride off with him, leaving it to Régine to explain her absence at the planned dinner in her honor. Stephane asks where she wants to go, and she suggests "some bar at some hotel." While Camille happily gives expression to her joy over her success and her feelings for Stephane, the latter grows increasingly uneasy. When she explains her superb performance by saying "I played it all for you," Stephane almost runs into another car. He finally stops at the curb and says: "Camille, I do not have the feelings that you think I have. I am not the man you think I am." And when she does not quite catch what he is driving at, assuring him that she respects his reticence and reserved conduct, and that she will always accept him for who he is, Stephane makes it unambiguously clear that he cannot have the intimate relationship that she desires."Camille," he says, "I do not love you."
His words finally sink in. Camille is crushed. When Stephane attempts a consoling gesture she rejects it vehemently and with hatred. She gets out of the car and walks away, numbed by her disappointment and feeling of humiliation.
Stephane drives out to the estate of his teacher. When he gets close to the house, however, he finds Lachaume quarreling with his housemate, Madame Amet (Myriam Boyer). The woman scolds him for not taking care of his health, and he responds by complaining about being nagged and hounded by her anxious mothering. It is a quarrel that grows out of the genuine concern of Madame Amet for Lachaume's well being, but it also reveals the often annoying and trivial aspects of caring and domesticity. Embarrassed, Stephane retreats before he is noticed.
Meanwhile Camille drowns her sorrow in a bottle of gin. Régine calls Maxime to the apartment of the women because she does not know what to do with her. When Maxime appears, Camille gets up from her bed and starts applying heavy make-up to her face. She looks vulgar and out of character. Like a sleepwalker she walks past her baffled friends and finally shows up at the restaurant where Stephane is having dinner with Hélène. Uninvited she joins the two at their table and harangues them with snide and insulting remarks. Hélène finally gets up and leaves.
Looking at the embarrassed Stephane Camille apologizes in a soft voice: "I can't help it." She is wondering what is happening to her. She pleads once more for Stephane's love, reminding him of the rainy day at the bistro, and of "the words he spoke to her" at the time of that happy encounter. "But I didn't say anything," Stephane replies. At that Camille furiously lights into him; her recriminations become loud and vulgar. The other guests are listening and watching--scandalized and discreetly amused. Screaming, Camille accuses Stephane of being disconnected from life, and of having no idea of passions and dreams even in music. "You should have followed through with your designs at the time. You should have fucked me. You would have been a rat, but that's real life!"
The manager finally prompts Camille to leave the premises--just as Maxime appears on the scene. Maxime walks up to Stepane's table in a cold fury and slaps his partner hard. Stephane crashes to the floor amidst breaking dishes and scattering silverware. It is the violent end of their partnership.
The next day Stephane removes his belongings from the shop and moves in temporarily with Lachaume. In a conversation Lachaume mentions possible motives for Stephane's pursuit and rejection of Camille: Did he want to "rock the boat"? Did he want to "demystify feelings"? Or did he feel unworthy of Camille? All of these are plausible motives, and all of them may well have played a role in Stephane's conduct. But Stephane does not offer any answers or clarifications.
After some time Stephane calls on Camille. He tells her that he has not come to apologize, but that he wants to see her. "Well, you are seeing me," she replies coldly. He tries to explain that she had been right with her accusations, that there is indeed something dead in him, and that this deadness has always made him be "too late for everything in life." It has ruined his chances with her, and it has led to his loss of Maxime. Stephane's explanation is calm, but his words express a certain sadness. Camille shows no sympathy. "It's my turn now to be without feelings," she says while sending Stephane away.
Months go by. Stephane runs his own shop now. Many of the old clients have moved with him; the new business is doing well. As before, he lives close to his work in the back of his shop. Maxime once pays him a friendly visit and congratulates him for his success. He mentions that Camille has recovered from her emotional turmoil, that she is living with him, and that she spends most of her time on concert tours and by working hard on her art.
On another occasion Stephane runs into Régine. When she asks him how he is doing he replies: "I'm getting older." Externally Stephane's life has not changed very much. At work he still manifests his competence and professional authority. We still see him dressed in his impeccable suits and buttoned-down shirts, and he still displays his old equanimity and friendly politeness when he interacts with other people. But there seems to be now a subdued quality to everything he does.
Around this time Lachaume's health deteriorates dramatically. He is in great pain, and he wishes to die. He even has acquired the chemicals and the syringe that would allow his housemate to relieve him of his misery. But Madame Amet loves him, and she cannot bring herself to giving him the fatal injection. One night Maxime brings Stephane to Lachaume's house. Stephane looks at his bedridden teacher calmly, but with deep love and compassion. With his eyes Lachaume points to the syringe. Quietly, and with the same composed expertise with which he handles his violins, Stephane prepares the injection and applies it to his grateful mentor. In the morning Stephane opens the shutters of the window to let in the light; in the distance a rooster announnces a new day.
The last scene of the film shows Stephane and Maxime sitting in a restaurant waiting for Camille. When she appears Maxime goes out to get his car; he is about to drive Camille to the airport for her next concert tour. There is a long silence. "You really liked him, didn't you?" Camille finally asks, referring to the late Lachaume. "I always thought that he was the only person I ever loved," Stephane replies. He implies that he now thinks that there may have been others that he also loved. In an earlier conversation with Camille he had denied that Maxime was his friend; he had insisted that they were just partners. What he has learned now is that all along his feelings for Maxime as well as Camille had been much deeper than he had thought them to be.
Maxime stops his car outside the restaurant, and Camille gets up to leave. "I am glad we met again," Stephane tells her by way of saying good-bye. "I am, too," Camille replies, kissing him politely, but with warmth. As Maxime and Camille drive off, Maxime waves to Stephane, and Stephane waves back. Camille looks down at first, but then raises her eyes at Stephane with such a deep look that no doubt is left about the intensity of her feelings for him.
Any interpretation of the film will run into the following question: Is Stephane's state of mind and way of life the expression of some shortcoming or even pathology, or does his conduct represent a plausible ideal--a way of life for which even philosophical reasons can be offered? Does Sautet tell the story of a sad failure, or does he give us the outline of a kind of life that is attractive in an unusual way?
Under the influence of Hollywood movies and pop psychology, most viewers will be inclined to look at Stephane as a person who suffers from "psychological problems." Instead of pursuing the woman to whom he is attracted, and instead of responding to her reciprocating interest in the way any "normal" men would, Stephane does not act on his initial impulses, and even withdraws when Camille shows a keen interest in him. It seems obvious that he is "inhibited" in some way, that the "healthy" or "natural" expression of his feelings is blocked by some inner obstacles. The reasons why he does not follow up on his initial advance are not moral, after all; Stephane does not adhere to any code that would prevent him from approaching another man’s woman. The reason for his abstention seems to be an inability to feel. "There is something dead in me," as he puts it himself, and it seems to be this "deadness" that causes him, a good looking heterosexual male in his best years, to be a bachelor, to be thoroughly wedded to his work, and to be entirely content with furthering and enjoying excellence in the realm of music and the arts. What else but some sort of lack of vitality could it possibly be?
Psychologists sometimes divide people into those who are primarily oriented toward other human beings, and those who relate primarily to objects. The former are submerged in the lively world of persons and social relations, while the latter reside in the silent world of things and ideas. Stephane is decidedly the type who feels at home among objects. The first time we see him in his own quarters he is intensely involved in the restoration of a mechanical doll, while his friends are invariably shown in the lively and often noisy company of other people. Maxime, Camille, Regine, or Lachaume come alive when they are soliciting, quarreling, or interacting with swarms of playing children. Stephane seems most intensely alive when he expertly assembles a violin, concentrates on a musician's performance, or quietly sits thinking.
Stephane's life among objects is anything but dead. At first sight one might think that his demeanor is a bit on the catatonic side, and his face may remind one of the impassive mask of Buster Keaton. But Stephane's expressions are never without inner life, and his dark eyes reveal an intensity of feeling that is as vibrant in its way as the more extrovert conduct of the people around him. With respect to body language and facial expressions Stephane is simply a minimalist. His soul is not void of passions and interests, but a place where such feelings have been transformed into something that lies beyond the concerns and commotion of more ordinary lives.
What is different with him could be described in terms of Freudian psychology: Stephane's sexual impulses and energy are alive and well, but they have become for the most part “sublimated” into the love of complex aesthetic expressions and the pursuit of artistic excellence. It is as a consequence of this sublimation that he is more impressed by and interested in the literary descriptions of love, for example, than in the everyday occurrences of the real thing. The transformation of human experiences in the medium of literature and other art forms is far more fascinating in his eyes than the ordinary and often banal dealings that one can observe in everyday life.
The philosophical conception of this sort of sublimation was formulated most famously in Socrates' (or Plato's) theory of love. Love and its sublimation is the central topic of Plato's book Symposium. During the dinner party described in this work all participants give a speech in honor of eros, or love, and in these speeches they put forth their respective conception and definition of its nature. When it is Socrates' turn to speak, the philosopher insists that he does not know enough about the subject to give a coherent lecture. Instead he offers to report a discussion that he once had with a priestess from another city, Diotima of Mantinea. All he knows about love, he says, is what Diotima has taught him about it. As his companions agree to his proposal, Socrates proceeds to lay out Diotima's theory of eros, a conception of the sublimation of sexual energy that has come to be known as "Platonic love."
All human beings, men as well as women, are "pregnant" and desire to "give birth" to some sort of offspring, according to the priestess. They have this desire because offspring is their only way to defeat their otherwise inevitable mortality: "So don't be surprised if everything naturally values its own offspring, because it is for the sake of immortality that everything shows this zeal, which is love" (3). (The translation of this and the following passages is by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff.)
Offspring, however, can be either of a physical or an intellectual nature; some people leave behind sons or daughters, while others are remembered for their artistic or philosophical creations. Diotima leaves no doubt that she considers the creations of the mind a more valuable offspring than the procreation of bodies: "Everyone would rather have such children than human ones, and would look up to Homer, Hesiod, and the other good poets with envy and admiration for the offspring they have left behind--offspring, which, because they are immortal themselves, provide their parents with immortal glory and remembrance" (4).
What is important in Diotima's theory is her contention that even the most sublime creations of the mind are made possible by the energy of eros. The poetry of Homer or the laws of Solon are as much a product of love's passion as a child. The only difference is that the erotic passion that begets children is comparatively primitive or primeval, while the inspired passion of poets and thinkers is sexual energy that has undergone a series of refining transformations. These transformations are reflected in the progression of steps that a person goes through in his or her intellectual education and cultural sophistication.
One such progression described by the priestess is that from the love of individual beautiful bodies to the love of beauty as such. Young people typically become passionately excited by the physical beauty of another individual, and a natural consequence of this passion is sexual involvement and the bringing forth of a child. Infatuations with other beautiful bodies may follow, and a lover may come to appreciate beauty in many other things as well. A most important step is taken, however, when the inspired contemplation of individual beautiful things leads to the question of what all beautiful things have in common—of what the general essence or idea of beauty may be. By thus moving from the appreciation of individual beautiful things to a general conception of beauty, the lover of beauty is reaching a new plateau of aesthetic experience. The contemplation of beautiful things in conjunction with a general conception of beauty and other comprehensive ideas results in a new and sophisticated inner life. A lover’s sexual energy, which originally was fixated on individual objects, broadens into the love of comprehensive ideas.
The lover of ideas lives in a much enlarged universe. He has, according to Diotima, become a "lover of wisdom," a philosopher. He sees things in wider perspectives. He is not limited anymore to the narrow concerns and outlooks that characterize primal instinctual love, but is able to develop an attitude of relaxed detachment toward all worldly matters. Considering his former infatuation with individual beautiful objects, the philosophical lover “must think that this wild gaping after just one body is a small thing and despise it" (5).
After Socrates has delivered his Diotima report to the dinner guests, there is a disturbance at the gate, and Alcibiades appears with some drinking companions to crash the party. Alcibiades was a successful young general and popular politician in Athens, and one of the most famous of Socrates' students. He was well known for his physical beauty, and notorious as a seducer of women and men. Many assumed that in his younger years he had been a lover of Socrates as well. Plato introduces Alcibiades at this point of the Symposium to convey something about the practical and ethical implications of philosophical love.
Since Alcibiades is not prepared to give yet another speech about the nature of love like the other guests before him, he simply tells the story of how he fared when years ago he tried to seduce his admired teacher. He describes in some detail all the tricks ardent lovers use to achieve the goal of their desires, and how none of these tricks had helped him to have his way with Socrates. At the time he managed to spend a night with Socrates in the same bed and under the same cover. But although Socrates could not be presumed to be blind to Alcibiades' physical beauty, nothing sexual happened. "I swear to you by all the gods and goddesses together," Alcibiades exclaims, "my night with Socrates went no further than if I had spent it with my own father or older brother!" (6)
Alcibiades says that he felt "humiliated" by this rejection, and he describes Socrates' staunch behavior as "utterly unnatural," "hopelessly arrogant," and "unbelievably insolent." Still, his over-all evaluation of his teacher is one of high praise. Socrates represents an absorption in and dedication to the world of ideas that renders him rather indifferent to the temptations and preoccupations of everyday life and ordinary love. Living beyond the drives and cares that shape the lives of most people, the philosopher manifests a degree of unconcern and serenity that results in an unusual degree of sovereign conduct. Alcibiades makes that point by reporting Socrates' behavior in war with its inevitable deprivations.
Now, first, he took the hardships of the campaign much better than I ever did--much better, in fact, than anyone in the whole army. When we were cut off from our supplies, as often happens in the field, no one else stood up to hunger as well as he did. And yet he was the one man who could really enjoy a feast; …(7).
When the Athenian army was routed at Delium in 424 BCE, Socrates did not react with panic, as most of the others did, but retreated calmly and without haste. His calm kept pursuing enemy soldiers at bay. "For, as a rule, you try to put as much distance as you can between yourself and such men in battle; you go after the others, those who run away helter-skelter" (8). Whether it was hunger, extreme cold, or mortal danger, Socrates, according to Alcibiades' testimony, always conducted himself with calm and equanimity--as a man in, but not of the world.
Again, all this is ultimately the result of sublimated love, according to the philosophy of the Symposium. It is the concentrated and intensive appreciation of ideal things and the world of ideas that removes a person from the usual entanglements of sexual desires, small-minded pursuits, or the grip of instinctual fears. Sublimated love is a passion that engenders emotional detachment and it manifests itself in an ethics of distance--distance to the world and the everyday preoccupations of ordinary humans. It is this inner distance to the world that is at the heart of Socrates’ unflappable composure and unworldly conduct.
Stephane’s Way of Being in the World
Stephane, although he does not explicitly subscribe to any philosophy, has much of this Socratic composure. His intimate and concentrated involvement in the world of music and his interest in literature are part of his distance to the ordinary affairs of the world. Listening to the nuances of complex sounds and demanding compositions means more to him than having affairs, traveling places, or raising a family. The consuming entanglements that intimate relationships and caring involvement in the world inevitably bring would be a distraction or disturbance in the kind of life he wishes to live.
Many, like Camille, would consider such an unworldly life as a form of escapism--as a perhaps cowardly retreat from all the things that give substance and meaning to a human life. They would take it for granted that there is something wrong with people who avoid love the way Stephane does, and the only question for them would be the cause of such “unnatural” behavior—selfishness, timidity, fear of commitment, emotional deadness, or some such untoward disposition.
Stephane's own mentioning of "something dead" in him may prompt them to think of his demeanor as something inflicted on him, as a pathological condition that was caused by traumatic events. But Stephane's refusal to become intimate with Camille in the usual way is a choice, a choice that makes sense--even if psychologists should be able to connect it to some story of early trauma. The film provides enough material for the viewer to see that a life entangled in worldly human affairs can be much less attractive than the calm and detached life that Stephane lives. Sexually intimate love, after all, does not only have the enchanting and beatific aspects that typical Hollywood romances emphasize, and that at first are in the foreground of the story of Stephane and Camille, but also unpleasant sides that grow out of the instinctual and often brutish constitution of human beings as part of the animal kingdom. Throughout "A Heart in Winter" Sautet placed a number of scenes that deliberately depict intimate relationships at their less than palatable moments.
When Stephane and Camille have their first get-together at the bistro, for example, they overhear a heated quarrel of a couple seated at a table behind them. The woman screams a number of insults at her lover, and then knocks glasses and dishes off their table. "I fear for their future," Stephane remarks with sarcastic understatement, and Camille observes: "I think the man is crying." The latter seems to be the case, for the woman's attitude suddenly changes. She caresses the man's face with motherly tenderness, while a none too subtle expression of triumph illuminates her features. Obviously, a dark underside of passionate romantic love is shown in this scene, a side that is closely connected to hidden aggressions, power struggles, and strident demands. Romantic love is not often what it appears to be. It is needy appropriation as much as tender giving; it manifests itself in desperate clawing as much as in joyful affirmation. It is a roiling tangle of pleasures and dark drives that gives the lie to the beatific images usually associated with romantic stereotypes of love.
The quarrel between Lachaume and Madame Amet that Stephane observes when he comes to the house of his former teacher sheds additional light on the matter. Here the close connection between genuine affection and aggressive intrusion is even more disturbing, at least to Stephane. Madame Amet nags and pressures Lachaume to take better care of himself--to eat right, to exercise, to stop smoking, and so forth. But Lachaume resents being mothered. He furiously demands: “Stop bulldozing me with your big tits,” and he insists that he does not want to “live glued together.”
Madame Amet responds in kind: she offers to leave him altogether. Lachaume then scolds her for taking things to extremes… And so the quarrel runs its predictable course. There is no doubt that the two care dearly for each other, and that they are deeply committed to their household. But it seems inevitable that periodically hostile feelings arise and ugly exchanges develop. The fact is that love is not just loving: it always brings its dark shadow along. Stephane is rather turned off by such humanness; he has no use for relationship hassles, emotional quibbles, irritability, or the usual domestic spats. To live his contemplative life he needs to keep his mind and time free of such matters; he needs to keep his distance from the entanglements that seem to consume too much of people’s lives.
A short scene involving Camille and Régine highlights yet another disturbing aspect of love: jealousy. While dressing to go out with Maxime and Camille, Régine is very irritable. Fussing about, she complains about lack of time as well as a lack of gratitude on Camille's part for all her efforts on behalf of Camille's career. Régine's specific complaints are not really called for; it turns out that behind her irritation is the growing involvement of Camille with Maxime, and the inevitable lessening of the violinist's close relationship with her mentor and agent. Love, as Régine demonstrates, is possessive, demanding, and egotistic. Perceived threats to assumed rights lead to bitter and ugly recriminations. It is love that makes the lover spit venom at the beloved. Sautet makes sure that we are well aware of how closely related love interests are to petty behavior and negative feelings. It helps the viewer see that Stephane has sound reasons for staying aloof--for not wanting to get involved in the way most people do.
To forestall the conclusion that unpleasant scenes occur only among some people--among individuals, perhaps, who may be immature in some ways or lacking in genteel "social skills"--the film shows that even the most refined and sophisticated persons in this story display the traits that tend to keep Stephane away from the world of ordinary intimacy. When Camille first complains about Stephane's reticence and withdrawal, her voice is soft, and her demeanor expresses nothing but sadness. After his outright refusal of her advances, however, her "real temperament," as Lachaume called it, comes to the surface in violent ways. The very passion that first appeared as charm, joy, and discrete tenderness now finds expression in raucous screaming, wild accusations, and rather crude language.
Maxime, too, loses his civil disposition when his primal passions are roused. When he first learns of Camille's feelings for Stephane he just mentions physical force: "I can't very well beat him up." In the pitched restaurant scene, however, the discrete man of the world is a slugger, even though it is not at all clear that Stephane is guilty of any punishable mischief. Even among very cultured people, in other words, non-sublimated love is bound to reveal its uncivilized aspects. Like Tennyson's unredeemed nature, primal love is "red in tooth and claw." It is a force that Stephane prefers to leave out of his life--in favor of his detached equanimity.
Wisdom literature from many cultures has produced plenty of advice to this effect. The basic truth of Buddhism, for example, counsels that life is essentially suffering, and that faith in something like romantic love is a sort of illusion. In the Western tradition Socrates’ ethics found a prominent and influential continuation in Stoicism, the philosophy that deems tranquil equanimity to be of far greater value than such emotional extremes as infatuation or hateful disgust. (Even classical Hedonism advises against passionate feelings and recommends a relatively detached life of quiet contemplation.) Stephane is a Stoic of sorts. He is skeptical and uncooperative when people seek out the sort of involvement that is bound to produce suffering, emotional clutter, and distracting confusions. Avoiding such emotional turmoil is wisdom for him, and affective minimalism beauty. Stephane’s concentration on art and a few things well done brings about aesthetic perfection as well as inner peace.
It would, of course, be wrong to see "A Heart in Winter" simply as a proselytizing defense or illustration of Platonic love, or Stephane as an exemplary hero whose purpose it is to recommend philosophical principles. Stephane's character, for one thing, is by no means unproblematic. He tells Camille that his siblings used to think of him as somewhat devious, and that he is the first to admit it. The film also makes explicit reference to the work of Mikhail Lermontov--presumably to his signature novel A Hero of Our Time. Early in the film Hélène hands Stephane a book by the Russian writer, suggesting that he would like it. Hélène, as her various remarks show, knows something of Stephane's deviousness, a trait that he shares with the protagonist of Lermontov's novel. This “hero of our time” has a good deal of trouble with love, and his conduct may not be entirely honorable. He makes, for example, a princess fall madly in love with him by carefully avoiding her after his initial advances. "The young princess definitely hates me," he somewhat smugly observes, knowing full well that this hate grows out of the frustrated desires that he inspired in her.
Lermontov’s protagonist is not a sadist, however, but something like a rebel or critic of his culture. He is disgusted with the dubious notion of romantic love that is generally accepted in the society described in A Hero of Our Time. He is, unlike the people around him, keenly aware that amorous relationships are a "war," and that "thirst for power" inspires much of what happens in them. He is annoyed by the young women who keep reading and dreaming about romances and romantic love (in the way today’s consumers relish formula-driven romances in soap operas or Hollywood films), and refuse to see the falseness in their notion of love. "I despise women so that I don't have to love them," he once tells an army colleague. "For otherwise life would be too ridiculous a melodrama."
While Stephane may not share the missionary militancy of Lermontov's modern hero, he is well aware of the subconscious power plays that pervade romantic relationships, and he has definitely been willing to engage in them himself--as a sort of “game." To explain his lack of romantic feelings he tells Camille that he made his initial advances in the same spirit in which he plays racket ball. He clearly has no use for the kind of sentiments that most people cherish and desire in such situations. Stephane’s declaration that Maxime is just his partner, and not a friend, shows how hard he has been trying to purge all feelings from his personal relationships. Like Lermontov’s hero he disdains the sentimental culture around him, and he prefers to fashion his life and social relationships as sober and object-oriented as possible. (Stephane’s sober objectivity was the reason why he was chosen to assist Lachaume with his suicide. That assistance required a kind of love that was free of sentimentality.)
To say that Stephane’s character is problematic implies seeing that his abstention from feelings and involvement was not just motivated by a Platonic love of ideas, but also by the “deadness” that he mentions in his conversations with Camille. In the end Stephane does not rule out that there may be a psychological origin of his Stoic disposition, and that his conduct may be seen by some as regrettable. But that does not invalidate his emotional minimalism as a plausible ideal. Socrates’ teachings still make sense, and the drawbacks that Stephane sees in a culture of primal or primitive feelings are still something to be seriously considered.
The avoidance of emotional extremes cannot claim the status of an absolutely valid doctrine, of course. Camilles temporary vulgarity, after all, is the flip side of her superb performance as an artist, and Stephane’s self-confessed lack of artistic talent may have more than a coincidental relation with his emotional abstinence. ("I do not trust winter, because it is the season of comfort," Arthur Rimbaud wrote in A Season in Hell. Exposure to extreme experiences and passions was a necessary condition for truly great art in his eyes.) Still, Stephane’s life and conduct as such are not a failure, and his Platonic chastity has much to recommend it as a philosophy of life. While most people may prefer summer or other lively seasons, winter definitely has its own beauty.
(From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating
Rita and Other Philosophical Movies)
Thanks to Stephen Dunn and Jim Ralston for their insightful critiques and commentaries of this essay.
Socrates: The Good Life
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