At first, Claude Sautet's A Heart in Winter (a.k.a. Un coeur en hiver) may not seem like much, but it's actually a remarkable feat: a thriller that exists solely on the emotional plane, with a palpable tension fomented by thoughts rather than actions.
Daniel Auteuil stars as Stéphane, a meticulous violin luthier who has stripped away all other facets of life outside of his work, leading a spartan existence in the spare room behind the workshop of an amiable dealer of fine instruments. When his boss (André Dussollier) begins a romantic relationship with an upcoming musician (Emmanuelle Béart), Stéphane feels a rare stir of passion — and she, in turn, feels drawn toward this socially awkward and remote perfectionist.
Sautet employs a rare narrative minimalism in A Heart in Winter, staying tightly focused on the furtive exchange of suppressed emotions between two artists, one whose livelihood depends on the vigorous expression her feelings and one who refuses to release them. Actors of the quality of Auteuil and Béart are prerequisites for such an intimate (and, in some ways, uneventful) drama, and neither disappoints. Auteuil is a compelling conveyor of simmering inner-strife, and there's no one better than Béart at flashing a seductive, pained or devastating glance. While it's amusing to consider their roles in A Heart in Winter as counterparts to their contentious pairing in 1986's Manon of the Spring, Béart and Auteuil more directly evoke a smeared mirror image of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in David Lean's Brief Encounter, this time Frenchier, with a colder twist on desire and denial.
Sautet keeps his compositions for A Heart in Winter simple and sober, dark and often enclosed, with subtle dashes of color accenting the characters. It's a small movie, with a nearly imperceptible scope of action, and one that some might justifiably compare to watching paint dry — but, I just might be content to watch Béart watch paint dry for a couple of hours, so the economical psychological fireworks in A Heart in Winter are a bonus.
A Heart in Winter was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Bas van Stratum. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #37/2378 (98%), where it's his 5th favorite Psychological Drama out of 161. It ranked on my Flickchart at #690 (82%), making it my #59 out of 264 Psychological Dramas.