Writer/director Joan Micklin Silver joins the Criterion Collection with a 4K restoration of her dark rom-com satire “Chilly Scenes of Winter.”

Personal feelings have a way of clouding one’s more practical or pragmatic judgement. If we’re excited or enamored with something, we’re more likely to excuse or soften something’s harder edges. If we’re not interested or already turned off by something, we’re more likely to become frightened or disgusted by the very same thing. This is explained rather perfectly in the February 4th, 2013 episode, “P.S. I Love You” from the CBS series How I Met Your Mother in which lead-character Ted Mosby explains the Dobler/Dahmer Theory. In short, if two people are into each other, romantic advances are welcomed; but, if the two are not in sync, those same advances are creepy. Especially as there’s less tolerance (even if not more judicial reaction) for harassment between the sexes, being love-struck used as the excuse for red flag behavior is not only gross, but not to be exemplified or encouraged. It’s with this mentality that one struggles with the latest restoration from The Criterion Collection, writer/director Joan Micklin Silver’s (Loverboy) 1979/1982 release Chilly Scenes of Winter, a grossly misadvertised rom-com that’s more dark dramedy than love story.

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L-R: John Heard as Charles and Allen Joseph as Blind Man in CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

It’s been a year since their break-up and lovelorn Charles (John Heard) finds little in his life to derive any joy. He’s a civil servant going nowhere, living in the house his grandmother willed him with his middle school pal Sam (Peter Riegert) who’s in between jobs, and trying to make sense of his mother Clara’s (Gloria Grahame) suicidal tendencies. Stuck between the life that was and what he wishes it to be, Charles can’t move past his ex Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), especially when he learns of the possibility of reconciliation.

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L-R: John Heard as Charles and May Beth Hurt as Laura in CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

The above summary makes the film appear docile, fairly basic to a degree, in terms of romantic comedies. Down-on-his-luck male lead longs for his lost love, pining away until opportunity strikes for him to attempt to rekindle that love. There’s a certain classic romance feel about it. Even as we meet Charles for the first time, he walking out of his office alone amid a sea of accompanied individuals, walking into the dark rainy evening, snow on the ground increasing his sense of isolation, to his car. There, his internal monologue transforms into dialogue between he and Laura, only for it to be revealed to be his imagination through clever performance, blocking, and camera position. In the next scene, where we meet Sam, Charles is cooking dinner using one of her recipes (isn’t he sweet) but has to stop to answer the phone from his ailing mother (isn’t he aggrieved?), at which point he addresses the audience directly to tell his story. Thus far, Charles is sympathetic, albeit dower with hints of veiled hostility, but, generally, an acceptable rom-com hero. Except the story of the meet-cute between Charles and Laura is incredibly disquieting as he continually fails to respect her as a working professional (refusing to follow her instructions), doesn’t afford her any kind of physical distance (is it charming to be on someone’s rear upon first meeting?), and doesn’t seem to grasp that cornering someone, even when there is potential chemistry, doesn’t convey safety, thereby negating any sincere response from the person being pursued because they may just want to ensure they walk away from the encounter alive. Again, this film takes place in the ‘70s when work-place harassment was common (9 to 5 released in 1980 when the Equal Rights Amendment was being widely discussed, but not necessarily taken seriously) and, more often than not, was viewed as “just the cost of women doing business.” It was bullshit then and it is now. This is our first cue that the rom-com promised in the originally titled Head Over Heels (for its 1979 release) is less traditional and more satirical in nature, seeking to explore the darker side of this type of storytelling through “good guy” Charles and stock character/stand-in Laura.

Looking for more reasons why Micklin Silver’s adaptation of author Ann Beattie’s 1976 novel is a piece of work? Repeatedly, Charles is depicted as self-serving, insincere, insecure, jealous, and prone to fits of violence. He’s never shown actually committing violence, but through Heard’s strong and steady performance, we believe that he would. It’s actually strange how frequently Laura doesn’t seem to react to his angry tone, statements of vehemence (though she might mistake them for passion?), or general lack of confidence. But any real understanding of the “why” regarding Laura is tainted two-fold: first, the setup of the film is entirely through the perspective of Charles and, second, we learn almost nothing about Laura as a person beyond being an object Charles covets. We know she’s married when they meet, that she’s having marital trouble which is why she’s not living with her husband, and has a child. We can lay out a variety of information that paints a portrait, a not particularly kind one either, of Charles, but Laura is mostly a mystery. This is likely why the original 1979 ending,  reportedly following the original novel, was reshot ahead of the film being re-released in theaters in 1982 with a more appropriate ending and retitled as Chilly Scenes. For those curious about the differences between the endings, the version included with the restoration is the re-shot 1982 ending, but you can watch the original editing as a bonus feature on the disc.

Speaking of the bonus features, let’s get into the restoration and the included materials.

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L-R: John Heard as Charles and Gloria Grahame as Clara in CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

According to the included liner notes, the restoration is presented in its original ratio, the 4K resolution transfer was made using a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative, the new master was referenced against the previous master, and all of it was approved by cinematographer Bobby Byrne. The audio, presented in an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, is also remastered using the original 35 mm camera negative. The difference between the restoration and original is particularly noticeable when watching the original ending as that near-nine-minute portion has visible etching in the frame, a burn or two from aging, and the colors aren’t quite as clear (one can’t really call the colors bold or bright in any way as the film takes place during a Utah winter, so the colors are naturally dim). One standout scene, however, that demonstrates the clarity of the color and renewed depth is during a flashback to when Charles, Laura, and Sam go out to eat at a bar, the warmth and intimacy of their fun radiating in the scene. It makes sense, then, that in the next scene, Charles straight-up asks Laura if she’s interested in Sam, as even we find Sam’s natural confidence enticing. Though the sound is not designed for a 5.1 system, there’re no complaints there, either. Dialogue is clean, sound is clear, and the jazzy tunes of Ken Lauber’s (Kent State) score are enveloping.

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L-R: Peter Riegert as Sam, Mary Beth Hurt as Laura, and John Heard as Charles in CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

If you’re looking for more information on the making of the film, there are three included featurettes, only one of which is new. Both “Joan Micklin Silver on Chilly Scenes of Winter” and “Joan Micklin Silver: Encounters with the New York Director” were available previously with the former being an excerpt from a September 2005 sit-down interview with Michael Pressman and the latter being a 1983 documentary Katja Raganelli (Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women) with Micklin Silver, her husband, and other collaborators as they discuss her filmography. The newest of the three, and the only one produced specifically for this release is “Producing Chilly Scenes of Winter,” which runs nearly 30 minutes, enables home viewing audiences an opportunity to get a better sense of the production, and features the producing trio Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf, and Amy Robinson, who called themselves Triple Play Productions at that time. Fans of Chilly Scenes will recognize the first two actors from their on-scene work in the film, Dunne as Charles’s sister’s doctor boyfriend and Metcalf as Laura’s husband Ox, but film fans may also recognize them both from their respective work in films like After Hours (1985)/This Is Us (2018-2022) and National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)/One Crazy Summer (1986).

I also highly recommend reading film scholar, author, and Forham University English professor Shonni Enelow’s included essay as it draws some fascinating connections between the film of then and the audience of now that certainly shook loose some of my own conflicted feelings on the film.

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L-R: John Heard as Charles and May Beth Hurt as Laura in CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

When I first requested to review Chilly Scenes of Winter, I was intrigued and excited to check out a romantic comedy that I was less familiar with. Slowly, the chuckles faded and an icy discomfort took hold as I watched our lead, our audience surrogate, shift from sad-sack good guy into an obsessive who can’t shake a relationship that lasted two months and, with whom, he idolized rather than got to know. As his behavior grows more uncomfortable, so did I, and I couldn’t fathom how to approach this review. The direction is engaging, the performances elicit strong emotions, and the score conveys a complexity that’s almost noirish. And yet, the disquiet I felt in watching this total shit bag of a human denigrate and neg his way toward what he felt he was owed, well, that didn’t sit well with me. But a film isn’t good because we like the characters, it’s good because of whatever subjective measurement one uses. While I’d love to put out an ad in this fictional 1979 to warn the women to run screaming from Charles, this doesn’t mean that the film itself is bad. Perhaps, it just bears the mark of a film out of time and poorly marketed. It’s easy to see, in retrospect, why this film bombed in its original release and why it was received better in its re-release. Fuck Charles. Run free, Laura; you deserve better than to be someone’s idol. We all do.

Chilly Scenes of Winter Special Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • New program featuring producers Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf, and Amy Robinson (28:07)
  • Documentary from 1983 by Katja Raganelli about director Joan Micklin Silver
  • Excerpts from a 2005 Directors Guild of America interview with Micklin Silver
  • Original ending of the film, cut by Micklin Silver for its rerelease in 1982 (8:42)
  • Trailer (1:45)
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by scholar Shonni Enelow
  • New cover by Marc Aspinall

Available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection March 28th, 2023.

Chilly Scenes of Winter cover art

Categories: Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews

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