CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER Blu-ray Review: Melancholy Romantic Travails

John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt star in director Joan Micklin Silver’s 1979 film of romantic obsession, now on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER Blu-ray Review: Melancholy Romantic Travails

Charles is hurting.  With a government job in middle management chugging along and a not-awful homelife with his sister and his out-of-work friend, his existence in Salt Lake City does not seem all that bad.  Not remarkable, but not bad.  

There in the corner though, sits an empty chair.  It’s a nice enough rocking chair, made of conservatively stained wood; ornate but not too ornate.  Charles once bought this chair for Laura, the great love of his life.  And now, she’s gone.  But he is determined to get her back.  As determined as a guy can be.

Though the premise of Chilly Scenes of Winter may not sound like much, the film’s exceptionalism is spread well among its key components, including its great cast: John Heard as Charlie, Mary Beth Hurt as Laura, Peter Weigert as Charlie’s unemployed lady’s man buddy, Gloria Graham as Charlie’s mentally ill mother, and Mark Metcalf as Laura’s husband, Jim, whom people call "Ox." 

Largely unsung East Coast American director Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter is nothing if not melancholy.  Time-shifting through various points in Charles and Laura’s relationship and bouncing back to the Laura-less present, the film plays like the fixated mindset of its protagonist.  

Sometimes, he breaks the fourth wall and just talks to the camera.  Every thought is of getting Laura back somehow, although Micklin Silver doesn’t seem to be on board with his desires.  She keeps him, and everyone else, fully humanized, and even sympathizes with him.  But she stops short of rooting for him.  Instead, she allows us to see him the way the eyes of Laura mar him.

The trouble with Laura is she’s married.  That doesn’t prevent her from taking up with Charles for a couple months.  Her marriage was never that good anyway.  So, she left it behind.  That is, before going back to it.  

Charles was the guy in the interim.  Not that she was looking for any such relationship in that intended time of self-reflection and "figuring things out."  From the moment she meets Charles, in the looming blah of their workplace’s sprawl of file cabinets, which she is in charge of, there’s a spark.  After their most awkward meet-cute, he doesn’t even wait a day to ask her out.  Her response is basically, "I’m married."  But also, "We can overlook that."

For a time, Charles and Laura are very happy together.  They even buy a wooden rocking chair together for her empty apartment.  (The place may be unsophisticated, but it’s metaphorically on point for her marital phase of life).  Soon enough, she gives in fully to the new relationship, and moves into Charles’s house.  

In glimpses, we see them settle as an established couple of sorts.  They even regularly go and deal with his flamboyantly delusional mother, a situation with no easy answers.  All the while, Laura’s wedding ring has a tendency of invading the frame at most inopportune times, as in 'Ah, don't take his heart, don't break his heart. Don't, don't, don't throw it away.'

Charles’ house is squat and flat, not at all like the IHOP-angled A-frame architecture her husband pedals, one of which she called home with him.  In one of Chilly Scenes of Winter’s rare dramatic overreaches, after Laura leaves Charles to go back to her family, he obsessively builds his own detailed model of her A-frame. Yikes.  

Still though, that minor misstep aside, Chilly Scenes of Winter remains peak, pointed, late-‘70s character-driven crunch.  And Micklin Silver makes it all look so easy.

Then something happens and it’s Head Over Heels.  Though Chilly Scenes of Winter is the title of the respected Ann Beattie novel on which the film is based, the studio decided to rename the movie Head Over Heels and market it as a full-on comedy.  

While it’s true that the Head Over Heels ending actually goes on several minutes longer and is the original intended ending, Micklin Silver deemed it too upbeat, and actually cut it for a 1983 retooled re-release, that time with the proper title, Chilly Scenes of Winter.  That’s the version that rightfully lives on, and that Criterion has ushered into its famed collection.  (The Head Over Heels ending is on the Blu-ray as a bonus feature).

Chilly Scenes of Winter_1.jpg

Criterion’s visual presentation of Chilly Scenes of Winter (spine #1176) makes good on the film’s title.  While not overtly color timed to the level of freezing, the film does evoke an appropriate briskness, particularly in outdoor portions.  

Late 1970s American middle-class mundanity radiates from every frame of this new, restored 4K digital transfer, as well as its uncompressed monaural soundtrack.  All of this also comes through nonchalantly in the beautiful evocative new artwork for this release, by Marc Aspinall.  The artwork adorns the insert, which has a terrific essay by scholar Shonni Enelow.

If a film has been previously available on disc from a different label, Criterion usually presents whatever bonus features there were.  Not this time, though.  The older Twilight Time Blu-ray’s isolated music track and audio commentary with Micklin Silver and producer Amy Robinson are left out in the cold.  Instead, however, we get a nice assortment of video supplements, both old and new.  

The late Micklin Silver reflects upon her career in excerpts from a 2005 Directors Guild of America interview.  Looking at her at that point in life may accurately evoke several assumptions, including “smart.” “intuitive,” and “cinephile.”  Simultaneously, and seemingly running counter to those, are “bookish,” “homely,” “family lady,” and “really, really articulate.”  Clearly, Micklin Silver was a very unique and even timeless filmmaker, even as her brand of grown-up and grounded adventurous storytelling fell out of favor in the 1980s. 

Then there’s Katja Raganelli’s forty-six-minute 1983 documentary profile of the director, entitled Joan Micklin Silver: Encounters with the New York Director). While it unquestionably enriches our understanding of Micklin Silver’s career, the piece spends a lot more time on her 1975 quiet triumph Hester Street than Chilly Scenes of Winter.  It’s behind-the-scenes access is rather limited, but it’s nevertheless good to witness a unique filmmaker at work.

The film’s unlikely producers, Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf, and Amy Robinson, are on hand for a newly-created program wherein they discuss how they, as primarily young actors, arrived at the process of making this film.  It’s a scenario as unlikely as any in Hollywood at the time, though its telling isn’t always the most dynamic.  Still, this short-ish featurette brings a different and even multi-faceted angle to the older Micklin Silver-centric inclusions.  

On a very side note, the Star Wars fan in me can’t help but bring up that the famous Leia/Han exchange of “I love you.”  “I know” from The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which is heard verbatim in Chilly Scenes of Winter.  (Albeit to much different subtext and delivery).  Reportedly, it was Harrison Ford who suggested that his character simply utter “I know” rather than the scripted mouthful of old timey romance novel-style reciprocation.  Could he have lifted it from Milkin Silver?  Not likely, as Head Over Heels didn’t open anywhere until October 19, 1979, a month after Ford completed work on the Empire shoot.  The only ways a connection could be made are the following long-shot scenarios: 

1.         Ford had read it in Milkin Silver’s screenplay.  (Perhaps he was approached to be in it?)

2.         Someone working on Chilly Scenes told it to him.

3.         If the exchange is in Ann Beattie’s original novel, Ford read it, and recalled it.

In any case, by mere months, Milkin Silver beat Han Solo to the punch with his finest line in all of Star Wars.

Chilly Scenes of Winter humanizes the story’s extra-marital affair and its participants without endorsing or even normalizing it.  Though focused on Charles, this is also very much the plight of a woman who, as it’s pointed out to her, is being made to choose between a man who doesn’t love her enough and another who loves her too much.  

Going into this situation, her first choice was, ironically, alone time.  But life happened while she was making those other plans.  Throughout this exceptionally modest film, Charles and Laura never stop making such plans.  And subsequently life never stops its chilling reminders that it’s never so easy.

The film is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection

Chilly Scenes of Winter

  • Joan Micklin Silver
  • Ann Beattie
  • Joan Micklin Silver
  • John Heard
  • Mary Beth Hurt
  • Peter Riegert
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Criterion CollectionJoan Micklin SilverJohn HeardMary Beth HurtUSAnn BeattiePeter RiegertComedyDramaRomance

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