First, the good news: Chilly Scenes of Winter is a sensitive and thoughtful dramedy for grown-ups that features careful direction and across-the-board good acting. Now, the bad news: Chilly Scenes of Winter tells such an inconsequential story that, quite frankly, it’s a chore to watch. Given the picture’s middling nature, it’s noteworthy that United Artists made two attempts at turning Chilly Scenes of Winter into a hit. Initially, the film bore a happy ending—as did the source material, a novel by Ann Beattie—and the inane title Head Over Heels. That version was released in 1979 and flopped. Later, in 1982, UA restored the title of Beattie’s book but added a bummer finale, re-releasing the picture as Chilly Scenes of Winter. Surprisingly, the downbeat version did better, marking a rare instance of a studio reaping rewards by opting for artistic integrity over pandering. Still, two theatrical releases represents an awful lot of fuss over a feature directed by a minor art-house name, Joan Micklin Silver, and starring two performers without any measurable box-office mojo.
John Heard, an excellent actor who lacks leading-man charisma, plays Charles, a Salt Lake City office drone. He’s obsessed with a former girlfriend, cute librarian Laura (Mary Beth Hurt). The present-day story depicts Charles’ struggle to find happiness while hoping that Laura will take him back, and this material is intercut with flashbacks telling the story of Charles’ and Laura’s relationship. At the time they met, Laura was married, but Charles wooed her relentlessly, which made Laura realize she was dissatisfied with her marriage. The catch was that Laura didn’t want to rush into another committed relationship. Chilly Scenes of Winter approaches a subtle idea—that of unfortunate souls whose romantic impulses are almost perfectly synchronized—and, in theory, Charles’ plight should trigger audience empathy. In reality, however, it’s dull to watch a dude mope while his voiceover accentuates the monotony of the situation: “The days go by, but Laura doesn’t call.” In fact, Charles ends up seeming insufferable because of the way he inflicts his angst on everyone in his social circle, and because of the way he can’t take no for an answer. Therefore, what should have been a character study of an incurable romantic ends up feeling like a melodrama about a stalker.
In a strange way, the realistic textures of Heard’s performance contribute to the problem—instead of hiding behind charm, as an actor of more crowd-pleasing instincts might have done, Heard plays Charles’ naked pain truthfully. Combined with the thorny aspects of Hurt’s characterization (sample line: “If you think I’m that great, there must be something wrong with you”), Heard’s anguish makes Chilly Scenes of Winter feel like watered-down Bergman, complete with scenes of Heard speaking directly to the camera. Happily, two supporting players complement the leads with softer-edged performances: Peter Riegert’s droll comedy style enlivens the role of Charles’ best friend, and Hollywood veteran Gloria Grahame, in one of her final performances, gives a melancholy turn as Charles’ deteriorating mother.
Chilly Scenes of Winter: FUNKY