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Emmanuelle Beart in Cannes

She sits on the balcony outside a hotel suite at the Cannes Film Festival and smokes a cigarette and looks very serious. I have met a lot of French actresses, and two things they are very good at is smoking cigarettes and looking serious. Not many of them look this good while they are doing it.

Her name is Emmanuelle Beart, and she has starred in two films that were hits in the world's art theaters, and now she has made a third. The first was Claude Berri's "Manon of the Spring" (1986), in which she gained revenge on the peasants who caused her father's ruin by not telling him there was a well on his property. The second was Jacques Rivette's extraordinary four-hour film "La Belle Noiseuse" (1992), about a duel of the wills between an artist and his model.

Her newest film, by Claude Sautet, is titled "Un Coeur En Hiver." That translates as "A Heart in Winter." It is a love story about a man who cannot love, and about a woman who gives him her heart, and then takes it back again. It arrives from France with some of the best reviews of any film in years.

It is the kind of movie that has a plot instead of a narrative. A narrative is when a lot of things happen, one after another, and then the movie is over, but the characters have essentially not changed. A plot is a story that constantly reveals new aspects of itself, surprising you with what the characters do and how they develop. Plot twists

In "Un Coeur en Hiver" we begin by thinking we are seeing a love story - a triangle, with complications. We are completely wrong. We are going to see a story in which love fails. The film will lack all of the proven audience-grabbing devices of the traditional movie romance, and will end on a note of melancholy. Curious, then, how touching it is.

Emmanuelle Beart cried, she said, when she read the screenplay: "I was doing a play, and the screenplay came and I sat in my dressing room and read 20 pages, and I really cried. Like crazy. I mean, I had to redo the makeup and everything. I cried because I think it happens very often that you meet someone, but it can't work because it's not the right time. Because you're not ready or because you've suffered a lot or because you just can't. "I like the part of Stephane because Stephane is probably one part that we all have in our mind, in our body, in our heart. It's the negative part; the part that's kept locked." Unhappy surprises

Stephane is played in the movie by an actor named Daniel Auteuil, who was one of the villains in "Manon of the Spring" and its predecessor "Jean de Florette," but here looks civilized and thoughtful - as if he is pondering what additional unhappy surprises life might have in store for him. He is a craftsman who repairs the instruments of the world's greatest violinists. He has worked for a long time at the side of Maxim (Andre Dussolier), who owns the business, and is as good at comforting the violinists as Stephane is at repairing their violins. Stephane admires Maxim.

One day a beautiful woman walks into the workshop. Her name is Camille, she is played by Beart, and she needs to consult about her violin. Soon she and Maxim are a couple. But then she has a few conversations with Stephane, about music, and to her astonishment she finds that this is the man she wants to love. She breaks up with Maxim and throws herself at Stephane, who is grateful and disbelieving. For a short time, it seems as if it might work. But no. Stephane cannot love. His bow is missing those strings. His is the heart in winter.

"There is a phrase in French," Beart said, "which means 'to miss.' To pass by. To not be able to stop. You love someone and someone loves you, but it just can't work for different reasons. That is what happens here. They miss each other."

The movie is so adult, compared to Hollywood romances. I recently saw, and enjoyed "Sleepless in Seattle," for example, an entertaining romance about a widower in Seattle whose voice on the radio entrances a woman in Baltimore, after which they are brought together by the man's cute kid, finally embracing atop the Empire State Building, not without great melodrama. It was fun, but it was not about grown-up people with complicated personalities. Compared to Camille and Stephane and Maxim, the characters in "Sleepless in Seattle" are puppies.

"Very often with an American movie," Beart said, "the end is very happy and you just feel good when you go out. When you go to a French movie, it's kind of like, oh!, and you can't go out; you're stuck in your chair. It goes so deeply inside of the heart. Sautet has a particular lucidity."

With the typical American love story, I said, when it's over, it's over. There's nothing to think about outside the theater. We wanted them to be with each other, and they are, and since their lack of each other was the only interesting thing about them, that's that.

"Right. You just go away. But for me, it's a pleasure, too, because sometimes you have a need not to think of anything tragic. To be happy for two hours is also a great thing."

But not the greatest?

She smiled.

Did you have to think a lot about who this Camille was, before she walked into the movie with her violin?

"I did. I think Camille has been working like crazy since she was 8 years old, and she really thinks that her only passion is violin. She believes that everything can be resolved by working, by her will. And she doesn't know how to live. She hasn't lived anything; she has just been with her violin, with her passion. And now for the first time of her life, she's realizing that she can't do everything by simply working hard. Here is something she cannot control. It really makes her go crazy." A self-exile

Beart speaks in simple, direct English, very fluently. I asked her where she learned to speak the language so well, and she told me it was in Montreal - a French-speaking city, but then, since she already spoke French, perhaps that was a good place to work on her English.

"I was a very bad student. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn't want to go farther in school. I hated school and was always the bad one; I was always insulting the teachers. When I was around 15 years old, I went to Montreal because I couldn't stand being with my parents, I couldn't stand being in school, and I couldn't stand being in France. And I knew I didn't want to go to university; I knew that something had to be more than that in my life."

She shrugged, and sipped a cup of coffee that had grown cold. "I wanted to do something extraordinary. It was my mission. But I didn't know what, and I was very sad, because I didn't know what to do. I was not able to draw or to paint; I was not able to play music. "Finally, I came back in Paris, because I wanted to see what it was like. I had always lived in the south of France - not far from here. I went to a theater school, and they kicked me out again. And so I started to go to casting calls and I was taken for a bit part and since that time I have...."

Well, she has become one of the most respected actresses of her generation. The French take the cinema very seriously, and they admire someone like Beart who is beautiful and could coast on her beauty, but almost seems to go shopping for difficult projects by important directors. Perhaps she reminds them of the young Catherine Deneuve, who worked with cranky old Luis Bunuel when she could have gone to Hollywood, and as her reward, she will always be remembered for the masterpieces "Belle de Jour" and "Tristana."

You went to the casting calls.

"Yes, I did some castings; I did some video. I did like all the young actresses have always done, but I didn't know it was going to become a passion."

From the beginning you attracted the attention of the very best directors.

"I think I made the choice. I loved the feeling of being in danger. I had a very commercial proposition when `La Belle Noiseuse' come along, and I didn't do it. I just wanted to do the Rivette." The right decision

It was a great film. In it, Beart is taken by her lover to meet a famous artist who has not painted for many years. The artists sees her and decides he wants to paint again. He is played by Michel Piccoli, that balding, saturnine presence in so many great French films. Rivette is not shy about showing the paper and the canvas as the artist works his way toward an idea of his model. The movie takes its time. Beart poses nude, hour after hour, and it's as if the artist wants to win her in this way, or crush her. But she is stronger than he thought.

"That was probably the film that changed my career," Beart said. "That choice. I had the chance instead to make the very famous film. But I had the feeling it was wrong for me. I had to make a choice in my life to be happy in this job."

Were you concerned about the extraordinary extent of the nudity?

"What excited me was that, for the first time in the French cinema, one could talk about nudity as a creation. It's very often you see a woman do a scene, and it's simply sexual. I wanted to try not to be vulgar, sensual, erotic or whatever. That you can find in many movies. "But my goal was to be naked for four hours without that effect; it was kind of vocation. You may think of me as an object of desire and I'm going to tell you that I can be in front of you naked and not be erotic."

Actually, I said, it's the artist who is the one without the clothes.

"Yes, he is the more vulnerable." A natural state

In a shorter film, you would have been naked, but we would not have grown used to it, grown accustomed to the long rhythms of the work between the artist and the model.

"That's why it's 4 hours long. You have to live every single moment of that time. And we lived it also when we were shooting the movie because we didn't know what we were doing; we didn't have any script or anything. We just created the movie day after day. Michel Piccoli and Jacques Rivette didn't know how I was going to react. I didn't know how they were going to react, and I didn't know what they wanted me to do."

Rivette didn't tell you?

"No. He doesn't talk. Claude Sautet does. I mean, I met Claude Sautet one year before we did 'Un Coeur en Hiver,' and I think we had two meetings a week for the whole year. We talked about everything; about life, about the sun, about love, about everything. So when I started to do 'The Heart in Winter,' I knew exactly what he wanted me to do and to be. So those are two very different ways to work."

Which way do you prefer?

"It's not to know what you're going to do tomorrow. It's like you have a house, and every time you open the window, you have a different landscape. It's really that feeling. "You were asking me why I did this profession. When I was a child, I had this strange feeling that I was a house to rent. I kept telling my mother, I feel like a house that needs to be rented. But she didn't understand. I had a strange emptiness and loneliness, and since I'm doing this profession, I have a lot of friends - and I'm talking about my parts."

The characters you play are your occupants.

"Yes; they rent me. And I feel exactly what they feel; I become someone else. It's schizophrenia, probably, a kind of illness, I don't know."

But she didn't look sick.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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