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  • Writer's pictureUriel

Art and the Clockwork Heart

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

How easy it is to lose oneself in a film, how hard to find? I often experience the former, but rarely the latter. I have known both, in Claude Sautet’s 1992 A Heart in Winter.

She told me that violin is the least forgiving instrument. True beyond intention. Violin is the least forgiving – to play, and to repair. Claude Sautet’s 1992 A Heart in Winter is a violin tale of a painful play, and an implausible repair. [If you didn’t watch, here’s your fix, 1:44:44 of perfect cinema]

One sign of a fine film is that we want to know “what’s next?” while watching it. A finer film is when, having watched it, we still wonder, “what’s next?” This curiosity creeps deeper still if we somehow see ourselves on the silver screen. We want to know what will happen to the protagonists – and to ourselves. Sometimes, fortunately or not, we get to find out.

Writing this feels like sending a (very lengthy) private postcard to myself. When I first watched A Heart in Winter some thirty years ago, I saw my own reflection, inviting and vile, in Stéphane (played by Daniel Auteuil), a master restorer of violins. Years later, rewatching it, I realized I became Camille (Emmanuelle Béart), the violinist who falls in love with him. With another film, my favorite, on which one day I’ll dare to write, I’m always a boy, reading my secret book in the school’s attic. With A Heart in Winter, I have grown. Now I watched it for the third time, trying to understand.

Stéphane and Camille share a passion for the violin – but do they, can they, share passion for each other? Their chemistry on screen is undeniable, partly driven by the actors’ personal lives: Béart and Auteuil have been together for years before A Heart in Winter, married thereafter – then divorced. And on screen?

A Dark Riddle

Stéphane and Camille are joint by music, torn apart by emotion, and lack thereof. Camille wears on her sleeve a heart that can hurt and make art. Stéphane’s clockwork heart beats in a perpetual winter, sustaining his strict craft. To play well, Camille must fully feel, thus make herself vulnerable. Stéphane, restrained and methodical, needs no emotions to perform; they only get in his way. He appears impervious, untouchable, and unbreakable; not merely aloof, but soul-proof.

How can that be? Camille responds in complete incredulity, or denial: “You aren’t like that; nobody is. It’s a pose.” But no, it’s projection – Camille’s. Like most of us, Camille can hardly fathom a person who doesn’t care about others. The real, caring, Stéphane must be there, under the cover, like the kid he helps hide behind a tablecloth.

Salvador Dali, The Veiled Heart, 1932
Salvador Dali, The Veiled Heart, 1932

We all project: casting our own thoughts and feelings onto others. This is partly how we (think we) get to know people. We do it because it’s easier than fully trying to tap into someone else’s soul, but also because it works: People are usually not that different. Except sometimes they are.

Stéphane calmly dismiss Camille’s disbelief, and her search for an explanation, “I seem to be laying myself open… Do you want me to invent reasons, traumas? Unhappy childhood, sexual frustration, career nipped in the bud?”

However frustrated, Camille, and we, might be, Stéphane seems honest. While some film reviews depict him as a narcissist, and his lack of empathy suggests that much, his candor, however coldhearted, defies this typecast. Amidst love entanglements, many feel they care too much and try to pretend they don’t, while narcissists, for a while, pretend they do.

Stéphane is a different breed. He defiantly shows he doesn’t care, almost inviting others to believe he somehow does. Like Camus’ Stranger, we’re drawn to the dark enigma of their indifference. But do we really want to understand them – or just rebut and rebuke?

Camille may understand Stéphane better than others, partly because she wants to, partly because she can – for she’s not altogether different from him. Stéphane asks his mentor if he remembers Camille; he does, “I remember a hard, polished little girl who kept you at a distance. But a real temperament, you felt.” And Maxime, her boyfriend, later tells Stéphane that Camille “is guarded if you question her, not for coquettish reasons. In fact, she reveals herself only in her playing.” Though guarded passion is far from cold indifference, I suspect Stéphane can see himself in Camille. He realizes, perhaps unconsciously, that he can better understand himself, indeed better himself, through her. Perhaps Camille feels the same.

Perhaps I did too. The riddle of indifference may have drawn me to Stéphane, at the age when I was trying to solve the mystery of myself, figuring out who and what I am. Stéphane’s piece of that puzzle was darker than most, thus most potent: partly a reflection of my present, partly a possible future, a dull crystal ball that both appealed to, and appalled, me: “Keep up this way, and you’re going to end up like him.” Was running away from my inner Stéphane partly why I turned Camille?

Warm winter

Maybe I was already Camille, thus, like her, captivated by Stéphane. Part of his appeal is plain to see. Stéphane is a genius of his craft, and quite successful. He’s sharp, attentive, resilient, and strategic. But a greater allure lies beneath this surface. If Plato got it right, and we love what we lack, wanting what we’re wanting for, it’s not Stéphane’s success Camille’s after. She is already so talented and accomplished.

The impassioned Camille may have sought Stéphane’s indifference. Feeling so much, so intensely, takes a toll; cold indifference offers a way out, of heartache and shame. Is colder, stronger, and stronger, better? I think not, to both, and believe – or project? – that Camille, wanting to live, thus feel, fully, would say the same, caring less about saving face than saving heart, however ferociously and achingly it may beat.

Georges Braque, Still Life with Ace of Hearts, 1914
Georges Braque, Still Life with Ace of Hearts, 1914

If not indifference, what? There is something else going on, and one scene captures it beautifully. It has to do with one parallel between the two; both are part of a duo. In the film’s first scene, Stéphane tells us about Maxime, with whom he works in complete harmony: “Maxime and I had known each other so long, we didn’t need words. We work together, but he’s the boss.” This is a synergetic partnership: Stephanie is somber and solitary, Maxime cheerful and affectionate. Stéphane honestly betrays bitterness, even envy: Maxime “is at one with his body… life hangs lightly on him. If he has to lie, he does it effortlessly.”

Camille, who’s involved with Maxime, found her own professional synergy in Régine, her manager. Régine takes care of practicalities for Camille, who hardly knows her own schedule. This synergy drives that fateful scene. After a quarrel with Régine, Camille feels guilty, and confides in Stéphane: “Without her, I’d never have achieved what I have. She stopped me from giving up in despair. I owe her everything.” It is hard to imagine Stéphane feeling, let alone expressing, such guilt and gratitude, but Camille’s vulnerability provides Stéphane with an apt aperture:

S: Maybe you resent that. She’s protection for you. C: Which I needed, but it’s become a sort of dependence. S: Which you used to accept but can no longer stand. C: Yes, that’s it, exactly.

We can now better understand what Camille lacked – what she saw, and thus sought, in Stéphane: not indifference, but independence, which Stéphane seems to possess. He is fully independent – sans dependencies. What Camille may have missed then and there is that the emotional ideal of independence is indifference. Seeking independence prepares your heart for indifference.

More importantly still, Camille believes Stéphane truly listens to, and sees, her. Like a blind hearing better, Stéphane’s frugal wording (which obviously amplifies the appeal of his enigma) seems to open space for better listening. Camille, like most of us, craves that.

In that short conversation, it’s subtly clear, an emotional chain-reaction commences in Camille’s heart. She looks at Stéphane and senses he gets her, calmly, pithily, and precisely. He keenly perceives the flaws of a violin, and the failings of humans – hers, and others. And he keenly understands what she lacks, while embodying that very same coveted quality: Independence.

Independence, and protection from hurt – and danger. In a later scene, we have their first touch: Heading toward a café, they realize it’s pouring rain. Camille, ever-so careless, rushes through, and the hesitant Stéphane runs after her, just in time to grab her before a car hits. Stéphane is not just a great observer of flaws, but of the world’s dangers. A moment later in the rain, he offers Camille his raincoat. He is protection, but by extension – in Stéphane’s worldview – a new dependency.

While enamored wholeheartedly of Stéphane, Camille is not that immature, nor certainly a damsel in distress awaiting her savior. If anything, she might have a savior complex. She’s confident, or courageous, or reckless enough – or too much – to believe she can repair Stéphane’s heart as he repaired her violin. She sees his enigma not merely as a riddle to crack, but a crack to correct, a cold heart to thaw.


Is Camille just too curious, ignorant, vain, naïve? Likely all, but mostly hopeful. “You act as if emotions didn’t exist,” she challenges Stéphane, “Yet you love music.” To no avail, no contradiction there: “Music is the stuff of dreams,” he answers. But can’t then Camille, a music maker, make her dream of him, and of them, come true too?

Camille would have seen the futility of her unfinished sympathy, and love, had she known Stéphane as well as Maxime, who goes so far as to encourage Camille to get together with her new infatuation; he knows Stéphane’s heart is hard enough to withstand her charms. Yet Camille insists, putting her innermost out there, again and again, hoping to win his wintry heart, so he can take a better path, with her. If he helped her better see herself, can’t she help him?

But Stéphane doesn’t want to be helped, let alone saved. In his mind, he doesn’t really need love. Camille should have realized this. In fact, she did realize part of it, the hubris, very early on, intuiting during their very first conversation that there isn’t that much insight, attention, or indeed a mystery, to Stéphane. At a dinner with friends, Camille defies one guest’s insistence that some people are better equipped to appreciate art.

Stéphane studies her closely, almost predatorily, then tries to lesson her: You too, he tells Camille, believe the masses are blind. But here Stéphane is blind, not truly seeing Camille: In her heart, she feels everybody and anybody can be moved, not least by art, high or low. What blinded Stéphane? Then as later, projection: he casts onto Camille his loveless approach to people.

The next moment is equally revealing. Asked for his own take in the debate, Stéphane expresses “no opinion,” since all these “contradictory arguments” are “valid.” Camille sees well through his reticence: “In speaking, one risks sounding stupid. Not speaking, one may appear intelligent.” She realized that Stéphane’s silence might just conceal little courage or things to say.

But then Stéphane goes for self-awareness: “Maybe one is simply afraid,” he tells her, “I don't have your goodwill.” True, that’s what Stéphane lacks: Camille’s emotional courage and goodwill. But precisely because she has what he lacks, he seeks her, and she, in turn, turns these “red flags” into an invitation for repair, of his heart, and of her longing.

Playing people

Dig deeper, and another warning sign emerges – from their very first intimate moment. Let’s revisit that fateful exchange about Camille’s quarrel with Régine: this seemingly attentive conversation actually runs ex parte. Stéphane reads Camille’s guilt and gratitude as masking resentment driven by her need for protection and her bitter dependency on Régine. But here too Stéphane projects: he is the one feeling resentment, and seeking revenge, upon Maxime, whom he depends upon and who protects him from the world.

Camille thought Stéphane saw her, but he could only see his own cold reflection within her, as he could with anyone, everyone. Stéphane’s words are so insidious and effective because they easily resonate, not just with Camille, but with most people who realize that they do not, and cannot, control it all, that they are fragile, in need of protection, that they are – that we all are – dependent. What often ensues, we know, are bricks in the wall.

What Stéphane does not, or cannot, understand is that Camille does not prioritize control over others, or even herself. She wants to care though caring creates dependency. Camille’s genuine appreciation and affection to Régine eclipse any fleeting resentment, and so Camille, despite frustration, can ultimately embrace her dependency upon her friend without becoming bitter. She can accept protection, and presumably offer it, without feeling she’s degrading herself:

“I’ll stand in front of you / I’ll take the force of the blow / Protection.”

It’s vastly different for Stéphane, for whom Maxime is just useful, as he bluntly reveals, “There’s no friendship between us… It’s to our mutual interest, that’s all.” Camille is saddened, and protests, “I don't believe you… He thinks of you as a friend.” To no avail. For Stéphane, people, like violins, are mere instruments – useful, when well calibrated, and played.

Georges Braque, Violin and Glass, 1913
Georges Braque, Violin and Glass, 1913

And since, compared to violins, people are less easily calibrated, nor hardly well played, in Stéphane’s hands, they are less likeable, even unlovable. For Stéphane, a romantic bond is bondage. In his mind, he can hardly love, and need not be loved. At the very same moment that Camille reveals to him, “It was you I played for,” he dodges a car that nearly crushes into them; “He must be drunk,” Stéphane spits out, and likely feels the same about Camille, whom he will soon discard for giving herself to him.

I want you,” she tells Stéphane, “You want it, too... I’m here for you. Look at me. You can’t go on living like that. You must see that you’re changing.” But he doesn’t – see, or change, or both – and makes his rejection of her more bluntly honest: “I’d decided to seduce you, without loving you... probably to get at Maxime.” Camille protests in disbelief, “One doesn’t decide these things.” But some people do, and Stéphane explains, “You don’t understand, Camille. You talk of feelings which don’t exist, to which I have no access. I don’t love you.” Camille wants something she can never have.

While Stéphane is the paragon of No Entry, he allows moderate access for two friends: Hélène, for occasional fun, and Lachaume, onto death. Stéphane describes Hélène as “Someone I appreciate. We get on well.” And she knows him well, well enough to fondly rebuke him for falsely downplaying his “power of attraction,” and leading Camille on; “Playing dead just makes it worse for her.” But in a way playing dead is Stéphane’s truest self.

Lachaume, Stéphane’s mentor, is his first stop after that last conversation with Camille. Stéphane watches the ailing Lachaume from afar as he quarrels with his wife, confirming Stéphane’s belief about the uselessness of romance, not staying long enough to realize that however broken, it’s a caring bond. Stéphane will later prove his usefulness as he obliges Lachaume’s wish to die, and meticulously handle, as he always does, the lethal dose.

Dead Dreams

What’s left in the wake of love? A wake and a wakening – grief and disillusionment, entwined. Camille did not go gentle into that good night of the heart, she raged against the dying of the light, and the machine that Stéphane turned his heart into, and lost.

Crushed by Stéphane’s callous discard of her, she decides to confront him at the café. “Who is this man? What is he?” she asks him, as we, the viewers, ask ourselves, knowing he’ll never answer. Camille, awaken, does: “An ear. A genius with his hands, as his friend Maxime says. Friend if it suits the interests of both. Friendship doesn’t come into it… Ah, it seems he loves music. Because it’s the stuff of dreams and nothing to do with life. You know nothing of dreams. You have no imagination, no heart, no balls. You’ve nothing in there!”

Camille directly gazes at the abyss that stares back at her. She could never heal a heart that doesn’t seek to be whole. A wake, a wakening, and a walk – away. And ahead?

Rene Magritte, The Blow to the Heart, 1952
Rene Magritte, The Blow to the Heart, 1952

Stéphane walks too, eventually, to her apartment, to tell her that now he too is awake. He looks different, almost vulnerable, yet expresses little remorse or guilt, and no love. But he admits the void within: “You were right. Something in me isn’t alive. I can never manage... I’ve put it off for so long. I failed you, and I lost Maxime. It’s myself I destroy. No use telling only myself. I had to tell you.” Tellingly, it took a romantic failure and a professional loss for Stéphane to finally make this move. Still, however tamed, this is brave of Stéphane.

But too late for Camille: “You have [told me], but now I’m the empty one.” If true, Camille’s early projection turned to introjection: internalizing Stéphane’s indifference. Perhaps now she can know him better yet. But to what end? For a cynical dance of two empty vessels? This renders Camille’s seeming serenity a Pyrrhic victory, covering an abysmal defeat. She has met his “no entry” with her “Exit,” showing him to the door, bidding “good luck.” But has Stéphane’s cold heart truly hollowed Camille’s?

They meet one last time at the café, after Lachaume’s death. “You loved him?” she asks Stéphane. “The only person I did, I’ve long thought,” he answers, coming as close as ever to express his love for her. Their tender farewell kiss breaks my heart. Camille’s last longing look at Stéphane, her eyes taming tears, reveals her heart: never truly hollowed, and as warm, but sadder still – for him, for her, and maybe for the world, as Stéphane lingers in the lonely glass cage of his heart.

Epilogue: Through a glass darkly

One day, when [the wicked hobgoblin] was in a merry mood, he made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked increased in size and worse than ever… All who went to the demon’s school—for he kept a school—talked everywhere of the wonders they had seen, and declared that people could now, for the first time, see what the world and mankind were really like… They carried the glass about everywhere, till at last there was not a land nor a people who had not been looked at through this distorted mirror… The higher they flew the more slippery the glass became, and they could scarcely hold it, till at last it slipped from their hands, fell to the earth, and was broken into millions of pieces. But now the looking-glass caused more unhappiness than ever, for some of the fragments were not so large as a grain of sand, and they flew about the world into every country. When one of these tiny atoms flew into a person’s eye, it stuck there unknown to him, and from that moment he saw everything through a distorted medium, or could see only the worst side of what he looked at, for even the smallest fragment retained the same power which had belonged to the whole mirror. Some few persons even got a fragment of the looking-glass in their hearts, and this was very terrible, for their hearts became cold like a lump of ice.

It may be no accident that Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen was published on 21 December 1844, the longest night. Few fairytales capture so well the allure of the dark glass, of seeing people as bad, or as instruments, or else as dangerously naïve, the authors of, well, fairytales. Such is Gerda’s journey to find her dearest friend Kai and remove the splinters of the troll-mirror that got into his heart and eyes, that made him cruel, and susceptible to the Snow Queen’s cold charms.

Was Camille’s journey nothing but a fairytale, a fantasy concocted in the delirious mind of a woman in love? Perhaps Stéphane was right, “You insist on seeing me as you imagined me... as someone else. But I’m not that person.” True – to both, who were engaging, like we all often do, in projecting their own lived experience, believing that the other is pretending. Camille thought that Stéphane, like her, can surely forge friendship and wants true love; Stéphane thought that Camille, like him, is surely more scornful and resentful.

Both, I suspect, also wanted something bigger than the other, to vindicate their worldview, and thus their way of life. Stéphane may have wanted to destroy Camille’s naïve hope; Camille wanted to confirm her hopeful life of the heart. Both failed, partly because they traded places. The film subtly knit Camille’s art and Stéphane’s craft. She tried to fix him, while he played her like a fiddle. But both went about it true to their nature: Camille tried to fix Stéphane in the passionate way she plays; he was playing her strategically.

Bansky - There is Always Hope, London’s Waterloo Bridge, 2002
Bansky - There is Always Hope, 2002

Through the indelible scars of unrequited love, Camille learned, the hard way, that there’s no romantic repair without mutual resolve; you cannot be fixed by someone else’s hands, only, ultimately, your own. Stéphane didn’t want to be fixed until he realized that he might, but by then it was too late. Some things cannot be repaired.

Still, winter may bring storm to the coldest of hearts, and Stéphane may have just undergone one, leaving him, in that glass cage, facing his greatest challenge: not to fix someone else’s art, but his own heart. Can he? This may require a rebirth, not unlike that of Leonard Cohen, who amidst a personal crisis went through a baptism of fire in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, seeking a new name from the one “covered up with fear and filth and cowardice and shame.”

There might be hope in naught. The wasteland in the wake of a destructive winter invites constructive care. Even if Stéphane cares little about, let alone for, others, he does care about himself. To some people, the best final gift you can give is walking away, and hope the hurt will help change their heart, that they will learn to love themselves, so that one day they can truly love others, maybe even you, too.

And what of Camille? Jacques Derrida, in his own post card, once wrote, “The wound can have (should only have) just one proper name. I recognize that I love — you — by this: you leave in me a wound I do not want to replace.” I don’t think Camille would want to replace the wound that is Stéphane. And I doubt she can ever erase him, nor wants to if she could.

Frida Kahlo, Memory and the Heart, 1937
Frida Kahlo, Memory and the Heart, 1937

But what can she do? Cherish his memory, for better and for worse, and be grateful for his cold candor that ended her infatuation so swiftly; had he faked love, her torment could have lasted years. Stéphane’s face is a mask that reveals what it conceals; it was Camille’s insistence to see in his eyes what he himself could hardly see within himself, that brought them together and tore them apart.

Finally, having learned new lessons in love, Camille can turn to what she does best: let her heart drive her quest for seeing, and creating, beauty that moves others’. She has that, literally, in her hands.

Thinking back on my own personal journey with A Heart in Winter, I wonder if it’s not that I was once Stéphane, then Camille, but that both have lived in me in an ongoing, silent dialogue, which I here tried to put into words I hope one day to revisit. Will I get to write a new chapter?

Fear and hope: Love’s lost but life’s not. Camille and I will never forget our Stéphane but we can try to forgive him, and ourselves – for falling for him, for failing him, for playing for him, for being played by him.

Love taught us life’s yinyang, even with Stéphane: to truly seek the whole is to see the hole, and its flip side – there’s a sliver of him in us, a sliver of us in him. Healing the heart starts with that. After all, if violin is the least forgiving instrument, what then of human?

“Kay, dear little Kay, I have found you at last!”

But he sat quite still, stiff and cold.

Then little Gerda wept hot tears, which fell on his breast, and penetrated into his heart, and thawed the lump of ice, and washed away the little piece of glass which had stuck there… Then Kay burst into tears. He wept so that the splinter of glass swam out of his eye. Then he recognized Gerda and said joyfully, “Gerda, dear little Gerda, where have you been all this time, and where have I been?” And he looked all around him and said, “How cold it is, and how large and empty it all looks,” and he clung to Gerda, and she laughed and wept for joy.

For coming together to understand A Heart, and hearts, I wholeheartedly thank B, E, N, M, and R.

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