Film 2018: The Lacemaker (La Dentelliere)

I have owned this DVD for several years, and this is one of my three most favourite films ever, but this is the first time I have played it.
Claude Goretta’s La Dentelliere (The Lacemaker) was released in early 1978 and was Isabelle Huppert’s breakthrough role as Beatrice, known as Pomme (Apple). I learned of it from Barry Norman’s Film 78 and, despite having no previous interest in foreign-language/sub-titled film, was intrigued by it. Norman thought the film superb, and especially the performance of Huppert.
The chance to see it came up after I’d moved to Nottingham. It was being shown in the early summer by the Nottingham Film Society and I was eager to see it. I took a friend: I say ‘friend’ but she was the inspiration for Lesley in my novel Love Goes to Building on Sand, so in my eyes this was a first ‘date’.
Then, in the mid-Eighties, it reappeared at the Aaben in Hulme, an art-oriented cinema. I made my only ever visit to the Aaben, Saturday afternoon (in daylight), by bus, in and out (you did not leave a car unattended in Hulme, not if you ever wanted to see it again).
Later still, I bought the Video, and later than that I replaced the video with this DVD, and sold the VHS on eBay. But I have not not watched the DVD until now because, to my horror, the English version on it is not sub-titled, but dubbed. Though I may understand little of it in its pure form, to me the original voices, their inflexions, their pauses and tones are an integral element of the film: to lose Huppert’s voice is to lose half of the film.
And for something so highly reputed, it is astonishingly unavailable on DVD. Earlier this decade, it was twice placed on a release schedule, and each time withdrawn, and it is still not available. I have no idea why, but it is a travesty.
The film can be summarised simply. Pomme is an apprentice hairdresser in a Parisian salon. She still lives with her mother and is a simple, gentle girl, mentally and emotionally a schoolgirl, happy with everything around her. Her older colleague Marylene has been having an affair with a married man, and is devastated when he breaks things off. To recuperate, she goes on holiday, out of season, to a northern coastal resort, taking Pomme with her. The place is staid and quiet, not nearly racy enough for Marylene, and within a couple of days she has abandoned Pomme to take up with an older, American tourist. Pomme finds herself pursued by Francois (Yves Beneyton), a student in Paris. They grow closer and, on the last night of the holiday, sleep together.
In Paris, they move in together. Francois’s friends, who are all students and intellectuals, love Pomme, who is simple, fresh and uncomplicated (and also thoroughly enjoying a sex-life). But Francois is paranoid that his friends are looking down in him because Pomme is not as clever as everyone else, cannot share their conversations. He keeps trying to get her to educate herself, ignores her happiness with being a hairdresser. A visit to his parents in the South of France is a disaster, Pomme being completely out of place. Back in Paris, the physical side of their relationship ends.
Pomme moves back in with her mother. She has not been aware of his psychological reservations and blames herself for getting fat and becoming unattractive. She develops bulimia, leading to her collapse in the street, and removal to a Sanatorium. When Francois learns of this, he arranges to meet her, bringing two of his friends for moral support (they wait in a cafe). Though physically whole, Pomme has changed. She is brittle, unconvincing, her body-language completely different, her dress-style changed. She claims to been on holiday, with friends, to Mykonos, but this is evidently made up. Francois realises that she has been destroyed by his treatment of her. He leaves the Sanatorium, bursts into tears in his car. Pomme returns to the canteen, alone, fragile. We understand that she will never come back to life again.
That first ‘date’, my friend was still living on the outskirts of Nottingham so there was no time for drinks afterwards. I escorted her across the City Centre to her bus stop, and we chatted about the film. She asked me, out of the blue, if I preferred happy endings or sad endings. It gave me pause for thought as I’d never been asked to consider the question before. Almost immediately, I came up with the only possible answer: that I like the right ending.
La Dentelliere ends in incredible sadness. Huppert is brilliant as Pomme, quiet, simple, unaware yet still sweet, and completely realistic. We feel with her at all stages, and the destruction of this lovely little woman is horrible to witness. Without ever spelling anything out for us in words, only in actions that we are free to misinterpret but which, inevitably, we can’t, we know that the Pomme of the majority of the film is gone, beyond recall, a slight, inoffensive person crushed by the overbearing expectations of people unable to respect her for what she is.
It would be incredibly easy to devise a happy ending for this film. Francois meets Pomme in the Sanatorium grounds. He is distraught at what he sees and it reawakens his love for her. He takes her in his arms, whirls her around, kisses her, promises her things will be right this time. Her eyes sparkle, she smiles, laughs, we see the old Pomme rise to the surface, she hugs him like she’ll never let him go again, and they run back inside, pack her bag and race off, and the audience vomits.
Because that’s cheap, cliched and phoney, and it would destroy the film because it does not in any way arise from what has gone before. It’s a false ending, stapled on, and it destroys the honesty of everything to date. It would be lovely for Pomme to have a happy ending, but the ending in the film is the only truthful one: it is the right one.
There is a minority opinion about this film, in America, which holds Huppert and Pomme as failures and Francois as almost the film’s hero, arguing that he acts correctly. This view of the film, which I can’t share for an instant, sees Pomme as a totally inert person, colourless, characterless, not even reactive but an absence that offers neither opinions nor wants. In ridding himself of her, Francois is doing the only thing he can do, and quite rightly so.
Nope, not with that. Nor is the film.
As I said, this was Huppert’s breakthrough film, and she was deservedly heaped with praise. Pomme is the heart and centre of everything. Her quietness, her simplicity, her lack of awareness makes her a potentially limited character: it would be very easy to make the absence of her that’s suggested above, so that the film collapses inwards, and we get quickly bored, or worse still start to judge her as supposed ‘sophisticates’ like Francois.
But Huppert avoids that trap with ease. Pomme is an innocent, but she is a real and earthy girl. She may go to Francois on the last night of her holiday as a virgin, but she has already learned to trust him, and once she’s had sex, she displays a good enthusiasm for more of it.
The film contains a crucial scene, involving full-frontal nudity on Huppert’s part. That in itself is no hardship: she’s absolutely lovely as far as I’m concerned.
But Barry Norman identified this scene as the best justification for nudity in film he had yet seen, and having considered it carefully over multiple viewings, I am in complete agreement.
The film operates on a basic three act structure: Act 1, Pomme meets Francois, Act 2, Pomme lives with Francois, Act 3, Pomme has broken up with Francois. Huppert has already appeared partially nude at the end of Act 1, going to bed with Francois for the first time. That could be called titillation.
In contrast, the second scene is a crucial moment in the film, ending the Second Act and setting up the tragedy of the Third. Goretta shoots it with a static camera, at the door of the bedroom, looking down the room to the window. Francois, dressed only in trousers, stands at the window, looking out into the invisible Parisian night, his back to us, slightly left of centre. In the right foreground, Pomme stands naked and frail, having just undressed for bed.
The scene is silent throughout. Pomme walks, shyly, towards Francois, stands on his right hand side. For a moment he is completely still, before turning his head the smallest degree necessary to acknowledge Pomme’s presence without actually looking at her. He raises his right arm, puts it around her shoulders for a couple of seconds, then slowly lowers it to by his side again. Pomme reacts without reacting: she doesn’t move a muscle but her body tenses by a tiny degree, barely perceptible: she is in shock, as if she had been struck. A moment later, she turns, walks down the room, with slightly tauter, hurt steps, lifts her nightdress and slips it on over her head. Her face is bowed, her hair around it, hiding her expression, from us but mainly from Francois, who isn’t even looking.
The next shot is the bustle of Francois’s friends helping her move back into her mother’s house.
This is one of those magnificent scenes that make legendary cinema. It’s done without words, it’s practically static, yet we understand it clearly. Huppert’s nudity is necessary to make that point clear: if she’s wearing her nightie, the messages is blurred, easily misunderstandable.
Could it have been shot differently, establishing that Pomme is naked without Huppert showing anything she might want to reserve for close personal friends (as Clive James once put it)? Yes, of course. But Gorettta’s technique for the scene is no technique. The camera doesn’t move. We see everything all the time. We concentrate upon what is happened, undistracted.
Change that, start to move the camera, change angles, flit backwards and forwards, showing enough to show that Huppert has nothing on, but without revealing breasts or bush. The scene instantly changes. Technique is the focus. Attention is drawn to how the camera is being made to depict but not reveal. The male half of the audience immediately starts looking for the next angle: will something slip, will there be a flash of nipple for a second? Instead of the scene focussing on Francois’s non-response to Pomme’s sexual appeal, it becomes the audience’s focus upon Huppert’s. The whole scene is turned towards sex, instead of being away from it.
No, the unmoving camera, the unhidden nakedness, these tell the story and the scene pivots between ending Act 2 and thematically guiding Act 3. It’s a magnificent portrayal.
As I’ve already mentioned, the film ends, for Francois, with his running away and crying. Pomme returns to the Sanatorium, the camera following her at a cautious distance. Her clothes are drab, and suited to an older woman, her skirt calf-length. She walks erect, in tiny footsteps, a controlled, rigid movement down tiled corridors, her heels clicking rhythmically. She arrives in a cafe area with a couple of other people at separate tables, unheeding of her. She sits down at a table. On the wall behind her is a poster of Mykonos, with windmills, the place she claimed outside to have gone on holiday. We understand she hasn’t been anywhere, will not go anywhere.
Pomme takes up some knitting, the click of the needles replacing the click of her heels. The camera approaches her from behind, slowly, circles her to her left. She puts down the knitting, turns her head to look into the camera. Directly into the camera. She holds that look. Long before the film fades, you are squirming under her gaze, feeling that she has known, all along, that you were there, watching her.
The film then fades to a caption, read over the letters. He passed her by without seeing her. Because she was one of those souls who do not give any signs but who patiently question, learn and look. A painter would have made her the subject of a genre picture. She would have been dresser, watercarrier or lacemaker
And it is over.


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