Chilly Scenes of Winter (the title of the 1981 director’s cut of Head Over Heels) painfully chronicles the year in a man’s life after he loses his girlfriend. Painfully is my chosen word for a couple reasons. First, because Joan Micklin Silver doesn’t disguise how messed up John Heard’s character is over the break-up and is just in general. Heard’s character is either the romantic lead in a film from 1979 or he’s the prime serial killer suspect in one from 1999. He lives in a big house, sometimes alone, sometimes letting his friend (a wasted Peter Riegert) stay. He’s got a mother with issues–Gloria Grahame is fantastic–and a step-father he cannot connect with, though the step-father is always trying; the character’s natural father died when he was a child. He’s a weirdo who stalks his ex, who’s returned to her husband. Silver and Heard display all those facets honestly and instead of making for a strange viewing experience, the honestly is a welcome surprise.
The other reason I used the word “painful” is because Chilly Scenes is from a novel and Silver retains a lot of the first person narration. For a ninety-two minute film to waste as much time as this one does filling in back-story with narration from Heard, not to mention the scenes where he talks to the camera or describes how he’s feeling… At times it’s embarrassing for Heard, who does a great job otherwise, with a very difficult role. The viewer doesn’t know the truth. I hate to describe him as an unreliable narrator, but it’s obvious he’s supposed to be one. He practically wears a T-shirt proclaiming the status. Mary Beth Hurt’s character is very obviously messed up and, while the viewer isn’t supposed to think Heard’s taking advantage of her impaired condition, it’s clear she’s emotionally absent. Much like Grahame’s character, but there’s no correlation spelled out in the film. I’m not sure about the novel (though I’d guess it’s in there, in neon).
Heard and Hurt’s scenes are entertaining and full of chemistry, until Heard starts to get scary and it all goes on for too long. And to make something go on for too long in a ninety-two minute movie is something.
The best stuff in the film is the present action, not the flashback, especially the stuff with Kenneth McMillan as the stepfather. The scenes where Riegert and Heard have fun are great too. The movie needed to be centered around his developing relationships with other people, not some malarkey he narrates over and over. It’s like a bad song in a lot of ways, but all the performances are good and Silver is a fine director. She just didn’t break away from the source material enough–it’s one of those films where it might be a close adaptation, which is not the same thing as a good adaptation.
Directed by Joan Micklin Silver; screenplay by Silver, based on a novel by Ann Beattie; director of photography, Bobby Byrne; edited by Cynthia Schneider; music by Ken Lauber; produced by Mark Metcalf, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne; released by United Artists.
Starring John Heard (Charles), Mary Beth Hurt (Laura), Peter Riegert (Sam), Kenneth McMillan (Pete), Gloria Grahame (Clara), Nora Heflin (Betty), Jerry Hardin (Patterson), Tarah Nutter (Susan), Alex Johnson (Elise), Mark Metcalf (Ox), Angela Phillips (Rebecca) and Griffin Dunne (Mark).