The Lacemaker (La Dentellière), 1977: A Study in Invisibility

It’s not until the final title card of Claude Goretta’s 1977 adaptation of Pascal Lainé's Prix Goncourt winning novel, The Lacemaker, that its mysterious title is elucidated. In matter-of-fact, bold white letters, the following words appear on a black title card:
“He will have passed by her, right by her without really noticing her, because she was one who gives no clues, who has to be questioned patiently, one of those difficult to fathom.
Long ago, a painter would have made her the subject of a genre painting:
Water girl
Like Vermeer’s Lacemaker painted in the late seventeenth century, Goretta’s protagonist, Pomme, dreams of spending her days working meticulously on intricate designs woven from delicate threads. Although Pomme is training to weave hairstyles in a Paris salon and not lace in a Dutch workshop, a dedication to the glamourous image of the bourgeoisie is something which she shares with the girl in the Vermeer painting. Both girls live in the shadowland beneath the surface of high society but don’t seem to mind – Pomme’s brisk walk and jubilantly bouncy red hair are Goretta’s answer to the soft face and strong hands of Vermeer’s Lacemaker, but however focused and open the face is, we note that half of it is in shadow, not from her loom or work materials, but from something unseen.

            Pomme (Isabelle Huppert) is a naïve young girl living in Paris with her mother, both working hard to make ends meet, her mother in a shop, Pomme in a hairdressers as an assistant. Pomme’s only friend is Marylène (Florence Giorgetti), a colleague from the hairdressers, who she comforts and observes through various worldly and distressing dramas with boyfriends. To get over a broken heart, Pomme’s friend suggests they go to the seaside, despite the fact that the season is all but over. While holidaying on the Normandy coast, left alone by her gallivanting companion who has found another lover, Pomme falls in love with François (Yves Beneyton), a lanky and awkward student of letters at the Sorbonne, on holiday with his family. Upon returning to Paris, Pomme moves in with François, but under tensions caused by their different social backgrounds and Pomme’s seeming lack of ambition, the relationship begins to crumble.
            The film exists on a stylistic plane either above or just below that of most films of the era, French or otherwise. Lacking the verve and revolt of the films of the Nouvelle Vague, this is not a film full of memorable or disturbing imagery, but it nonetheless succeeds in being totally unnerving. Perhaps this is because of the very implacability of its success. The moments of the film which we remember are mundane, like Huppert half shuffling, half running down a street holding six ice creams for her colleagues, licking them as they melt, drops of chocolate threatening to taint her white hairdresser's uniform. Later we will again think of purity being tainted as Pomme loses her virginity to François, and we might just think of the dripping chocolate ice cream and how when François approached Pomme at a café for the first time, she was eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream. The imagery of the film consists of these loose webs of images and ideas, but if these images are notes on sheet music, Huppert is their virtuosic soloist.          
Despite having already made twenty-two films by the age of twenty-four, Huppert was all but unknown internationally. In retrospect it is ironic that the role that cemented her reputation as one of cinema’s most daring performers was that of a person whose defining characteristic is that she almost does not exist. Complexity and difficulty have become the overriding themes in Huppert’s oeuvre, being drawn towards characters as impenetrable and controversial as the sadomasochistic piano teacher in Michael Haneke’s 2001 film La Pianiste, and the head of a video game company who seeks unconventional revenge on her rapist in last year’s Elle by Paul Verhoeven.

The authorship of this film is undoubtedly shared between Goretta and Huppert. Their shared focus is the moment immediately after or before the event – the minutes spent by François plucking up the courage to speak to Pomme for the first time, Marylène’s shambolic exit from an unsuccessful night out, Pomme asking François what “dialectic” means after an intellectual gathering at François’ flat that would not be out of place in Godard’s La Chinoise, even if it lacks Godard’s wit and playfulness. All of these moments are as carefully and meticulously observed, if not more so, than the main moments of the film. The image of Pomme looking longingly after a large white toy bear which her friend threw out of her apartment window in a rage is one of the most striking in the film. In the hands of a less poised and intense performer the moment might have passed completely unnoticed, but as Huppert’s arms, endowed with an appearance of fragility by her considered slowness, caress the edge of the window, we feel for Pomme, and not the distraught Marylène who moments ago we feared might have thrown herself, and not the bear, out of the window. The effect of this concentration on the minutiae is a heightened tension throughout, culminating in the tragic final quarter of the film which sees the mental deterioration of Pomme after her rejection by François. Even when wasting away and being sick into her bathroom sink, Huppert doesn’t give in to the temptation of melodrama, instead letting the simple performance of these ever more worrying rituals disturb us by their very nature and not cloud their significance with her own comment on the situation. Thus, for example, there seems to be less difference between her lonely walks on the beach and her collapse in the middle of a busy street, leading us to almost reproach ourselves for having overlooked her disconcerting fragility.
Although the prevailing atmosphere is heavy, moments flicker in and out of view in which we get a taste of Goretta’s lightness of touch, such as the misunderstanding over a man who François takes to be ogling Pomme, only to surprise him by producing sketches not only of her but of him as well. However enjoyable these moments may be, they are not sufficiently defined to punctuate the meandering nature and ambiguous tone of the film. The Lacemaker is by no means a masterpiece or even perhaps a particularly memorable cinematic experience, but an unusual sense of dissatisfaction lingers long after viewing, possibly due to feelings of regret or frustration at not having been able to “pin down” the elusive film.

Perhaps it is true that the film does not stand up to analysis or interpretation, unlike similarly elusive and delicate films by masters such as Ozu, but being so resistant to analysis lends more complexity and intrigue to its appeal. Pomme’s face and story live in our mind’s eye long after the film’s close, but in a form even less defined than in the final shot of her face. Huppert gazes into the eye of the camera accusatorily, daring us to forget her, daring us to define her, to describe her to our friends as we recommend, or don’t recommend the film. Her face, nearly the same colour as the white walls behind her, sprinkled with freckles like paint flicked from a frayed brush, is replaced suddenly by the deep black title card. It feels like a slap, in the face.

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