John Heard as Charles

Living the Blues in ‘Chilly Scenes of Winter’

A sensitively framed composition of human nature, Chilly Scenes of Winter reveals the desires and neuroses that drive men to the brink.

Joan Micklin Silver’s little-seen but remarkable film Chilly Scenes of Winter is based on Ann Beattie’s first novel of the same name. It has an interesting history; it was released twice, three years apart, under different names and with different endings. First released under the title Head Over Heels, the film debuted in 1979 to little fanfare and some poor reviews. Silver, who believed strongly in the project, pushed to get a re-release. The film was released a second time in 1982, under the novel’s title, as well as an ending that removed the happier one of the first release. The results were far more successful, commercially and critically.

Chilly Scenes of Winter has, for the most part, faded from many moviegoers’ memories. It’s a slight drama with little action, which explains why it may not have made such a deep impression. However, it’s full of expressive emotion neatly contained in the mannered contours of a very grown-up romantic drama. John Heard plays Charles, a 30-something civil servant who’s bored with his job and utterly exasperated with his friends and family. His sister leads a perfectly unassuming and unobstructed life, which perplexes him to no end. His mother is a suicidal wreck who spends her time sloshing around in the bathtub (probably drunk) while she ignores her adoring second husband.

Charles meets the shy and quirky Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), a secretary who works in his building. They hit it off very well and he asks her out. Laura tells him she is married but that it’s no problem — she doesn’t like her husband, anyway. Soon they’re dating, spending hours at each other’s houses and running around on the sly.

It’s not long before Laura begins to feel stifled; Charles has become overbearing, wanting to spend every moment with her. She’s tired of sneaking around on her husband, whom she feels will eventually find out about their affair. At some point, Laura tells Charles that she’d like to take a break from him for an indefinite amount of time. Charles doesn’t accept this all too well, and soon his neurotic tendencies begin to take over. In very confessional, deadpanned asides, Charles tells the audience just how far a broken heart can drive a man crazy. Charles does indeed go crazy, confronting Laura’s husband in a duplicitous and humiliating way, and telling off his boss and co-workers. His obsession with Laura isn’t dangerous, but it is all-consuming, and we see just how far he’s willing to be consumed by his complicated and unrequited passions.

Chilly Scenes of Winter captures incisively the psychological world of the male in a penetrating and sincere manner. Although the film was written and directed by a woman and based on a novel written by a woman, the film is far more accomplished in its depiction of the male psyche than a lot of the films by Jim Jarmusch, who has somewhat cornered the market on the narrative of the beta male. This is down to Beattie, one of the masterful women writers (along with Iris Murdoch) who is truly capable of getting inside the head of a male character and delivering his thoughts and emotions with glaring realism and honesty.

Silver brings Beattie’s material into a sensitively framed composition of human nature, which reveals the desires and neuroses that drive us to the brink; her version of Charlie is written with great depth, and acutely interpreted by John Heard’s nuanced and raw-nerved performance. As an actor his abilities have been overlooked and, as the years go by, he’s been relegated to a number of forgettable supporting roles. But here, his work truly exposes the wealth of his skills. Heard’s complex emotional turns, which transform his Charlie from a disciplined denizen of consumerist culture into a complete social wreck, is a performance to behold.

In Mary Beth Hurt we have an intricately designed Laura, who’s as determined and self-assured as she’s hopelessly lost. Hurt gives her leading man a great deal to work with. She’s an emotional sounding board which flexes and bends articulately in response to Heard’s dramatic volleys. Her Laura is poised on the double-edged sword of profligacy and regret and Hurt coordinates her movements rather elegantly, with careful and considered approach. Together, these two actors perform an awkwardly graceful dance across a demanding landscape of romantic quandary.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release delivers a beautiful transfer that especially captures the winter scenery with a cold and simple clarity. Colours range from warm and bright to cool and shadowed; a lovely contrast perfected here by cinematographer Bobby Byrne, who manages a clear-eyed and understated minimalism. Sound and dialogue come through very well, with optional English subtitles available.

Also included is a commentary track with the director, which is very informative since not too much was known about the film in the first place. An essay booklet extolling the merits of the film is also included in the release. All in all, Twilight Time provides a wonderful package that finally does justice to this often overlooked little film.

If you’re looking for a real flick about the male ego with all of its joys and hang-ups, you’ll do best to skip the fantasy fare of films like Fight Club and Drive. All the fight and drive to be found here is rooted deeply in the soul of Heard’s spectacular performance.

RATING 8 / 10