La dentellière/The Lacemaker (Claude Goretta, France/ Switzerland, 1977)

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A young girl nicknamed Pomme (Isabelle Huppert) works is an assistant at a beauty salon, living a quiet live with her mother and enjoying a close friendship with Marylène (Florence Giorgetti), the owner of the salon, a bitter, aging romantic who seems to lay herself open to any new relationship only to be regularly dumped. Marylène and Pomme go on vacation to Couburg, on the coast of Normandy, so that Marylène may recover from her latest heartbreak. This happens swiftly and Pomme is left alone, to her own devices, and rather vulnerable. Pomme is quickly spotted by François (Yves Beneyton), a tall angular bourgeois who’s charmed by her reticence and purity. They fall in love. He tests her, asking her to close her eyes and follow his directions so that he takes her right to the edge of the cliff to prove her trust in him. But really she shouldn’t have.

On their return to Paris, and wrapped up in each other and in a haze of love, they quickly set-up home together in a tiny apartment. Soon, however, class differences appear, start pecking at their happiness, and eventually shatters it: She doesn’t know how to handle the cutlery at dinner in his parents’ country house; the best his mother can say about her is that she’s honest; she can’t really participate in the conversation with his radical intellectual friends. But he really can’t explain the dialectic to her, much less its historical materialist variant. For all his tremulousness, delicacy, and shows of concern, he’s a selfish phony. Eventually, he leaves her. He’s surprised and guilty that she offers no resistance. But she sinks into a depression, faints on the street and is brought to a sanatorium. He goes visit her, but Mr. Sensitive needs his friends to come along for support. He’s more interested in being reassured that he hasn’t done anything wrong than in seeing how she really is. He asks her what she’s been doing. She’s been to Greece she says. Has she been with other men? Oh yes, many. He takes his leave and she returns to the sanatorium reading room, adorned by tourist posters of Greek holidays she’s obviously only been to in her dreams, as she starts to knit her lace; her future a reliving of the only love she’ll ever know, from one, who like her father, and like all of Marylène’s friends, wasn’t worthy.

It’s a lovely film, edited in languid rhtyhms, and interestingly feminist. The film begins at the salon, women beautifying themselves, making themselves up, putting on masks of femininity so that they can perform the masquerade as they leave the salon, masks which Pomme rejects: she can’t help being too much herself; she’s got no guile; it’s what will attract François to her and the reason he’ll eventually leave her. Despite living for the ideal of romantic love, none of these women get to experience it past the first stage of courtship and sex, except the intellectual Marxist friend of François, the independent woman, who by the end of the film is settled with her husband and expecting a baby.

Isabelle Huppert is extraordinary, first as a plain girl, barely past adolescence, then someone mysterious and astonishingly beautiful (one can understand why François is so taken with her) and lastly as someone so withdrawn she’s barely there, with a measured tentative walk and a pinched blank face; her future an endless clicking of herneedles; her lace-making ensuring that any thought is kept mechanically but efficiently at bay. A close-up image of her so made-up that she’s like a mask of the woman she thinks he wants — which then turns out to be the moment he chooses to reject her so that the mask is shattered by tears — is moving, beautiful and mysteriously resonant. It’s an extraordinary performance and the main reason to see the film.

But not the only one. Claude Goretta is probably best known in Britain as one of two young Swiss filmmakers (Alain Tanner was the other) so inspired by the two first Free Cinema programmes that they were inspired to make the marvellous Nice Time (1957) documenting London’s Piccadilly on a Saturday night. But abroad, Goretta made a name for himself in the 70’s and 80s with acutely observant and complex films such as Pas si méchant que ça/ The Wonderful Crook (1974) and La Provinciale. Pauline Kael said of the former, rather derisorily, ‘we know we’re seeing films made by artists’. But we do; and we are; and they’re worth seeing again. The Lacemaker is an excellent place to start.

 

José Arroyo

Seen at EICTV in Cuba

 

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