The latest in my French Selection came to me as a recommendation from the unlikely source of a mate who has never been the sort to be interested in foreign films, but who had seen and been very impressed by this: and I thoroughly agree with him.
La Lectrice (translated as The Reader) is a 1988 film directed by Michel Deville and starring Miou-Miou (real name Sylvette Henry and most famous for Les Valeuses alongside Gerard Depardieu). It’s based on the book of the same name, by Raymond Jean, which provides the spine of the film by being read by Miou-Miou in one of her dual roles.
La Lectrice is a story about a young woman who sets herself up as a professional reader, for those who cannot read, due to age or infirmity, or other circumstances, and about her encounters with her readers. It sounds terribly dry and passive, but the film is the exact opposite of that, thanks to both an intelligent screenplay by Deville and to a superb, many-faceted performance by Miou-Miou.
Miou-Miou plays both Constance, a pretty young wife who has, that afternoon, had a minor scrape in her husband’s car, and who he asks to read the short novel, La Lectrice, and Marie, a pretty young independent semi-attached woman, who decides to make use of her clear and attractive speaking voice to become the aforementioned reader.
Immediately, her decision is treated with suspicion, beginning with the advertising manager for the paper in which she places her advert. He’s far from the only one who seems to think that reading to people can only be provocative, and with devastating results, an opinion shared by a wild-haired and bombastic surgeon, Marie’s cool former Literature Professor (with whom she did not have an affair) and a sharp-suited Police Inspector.
Maruie’s effect on her clients does go some way towards giving the suspicions of these worthies weight. Her first client is Eric, a fourteen year old boy confined to a wheelchair long-term. Eric is clearly attracted towards the older Marie (Miou-Miou was 38 when she made this film) and on their first session, reading Maupassant, he catches a glimpse of stocking top and concentrates so rigidly on that that he faints!
I say stocking top since that is the effect sought, but the truth is that Marie dresses in a very antisexual way that nevertheless amplifies how attractive Miou-Miou is. Her blonde hair is cut boyishly short, topped with curiously close-fitting woolen hats, she wears loose, over-sized long-sleeved tops, calf-length shapeless shirts, long dark woolen socks, from thigh to ankle, merging into bright-coloured ankle socks, flat shoes and heavy, enveloping coats. The effect is superficially asexual, determinedly so, throwing all the attention onto Marie’s face, and yet I can’t take my eyes off her, off her eyes and her mouth and the range of subtle, fleeting expressions Miou-Miou commands (though there’s another reason for that which I’ll come to). It’s an effect that is considerably more sexual than the later scenes with the CEO with whom Marie has an affair, in which there’s some far from unwelcome nudity.
Marie’s aware of the effect she is having on Eric, and there’s a scene in which she plays up to that, allowing herself to get soaked on the way to his home, having to borrow his mother’s robe in which to read and allowing her legs to become exposed.
She’s also aware the effect she’s not having on her old Professor, one of those late fifties’ highly-intelligent guys who you can believe seducing every female student, but who has a rigid code against seducing any of them, which clearly disappointed Marie then, as much as does his failure to approve of her now. His disdain is neatly conveyed by a very late scene in which he teaches her how to properly cheek-kiss.
Marie’s other major client is Madame la General, the near-blind widow of a Marxist General, a hoarse-throated but lively woman with a penchant for Lenin and Marx. The film has already moved from strict realism by having Eric’s mother and a hassled father she’s seen collecting his daughter from school be the players in the enactment of the Maupassant short story she’s reading, and this pair, plus the mother of Eric’s blind friend, extend that role erotically later, blurring the lines between story-layers. But the General’s Widow has a maid(?) named Bella who suffers from spiders, crawling up her legs at night, leaving bite-lumps on her thighs and, eventually, in her hair-line.
Another client is six-year old Coralie with her over-committed, over-busy mother. Coralie inveigles Marie into taking her out to the fair, which leads to panic and police involvement when Corlie’s mother comes home to find not only daughter and reader missing but a generous helping of her jewellery, which Coralie has draped around her neck under her coat!
I’ve mentioned the CEO, a harrassed and nervous half-balding guy played by Patrick Chesnais, who won the only one of the many Cesar Awards for which the film was nominated. The man, unnamed, wants Marie for her body as much as if not more than her mind. For him, even before this becomes apparent (to the audience, that is), she has dressed very differently: heeled shoes, flesh-coloured tights, a knee-length fitted skirt, a blouse and cardigan combination. The pair have an affair in which Marie is very much in command, in a way that, gently foreshadows the film’s ending, with a libertine retired Judge trying to trap the by now notorious Marie by having her read from the Marquis de Sade.
That, if you wish, is the film’s only real problem. Not de Sade, but the lack of a plotline that makes for an ending. The ending of the book Constance is reading, the reading of which has interwoven with Marie’s readings, comes when the Judge invites the Surgeon and the Inspector, as town notables whose word is allowed the judge for all, to repeat the already-read passage from de Sade about anal tonguing. Marie ends her career by refusing the read, and leaving.
And Constance ends the film by ending the book. But she’s enjoyed reading it aloud, and she has a fine, clear voice. She turns to the camera, smiling at us complicitly: she hasn’t finished yet.
La Lectrice makes good and effective use of the extracts from literature that it uses, and which reflect subtly on the settings in which Marie finds herself. We know little of Constance, save that she is married where Marie doesn’t marry, but the film encourages us to equate the two, and Miou-Miou’s ever changing face makes that an inviting prospect.
I don’t know anything like enough – make that anything – about French literature to comment on the literary side and I do get the sense that I am missing a very large part of the film because I do not share the cultural background. Nevertheless, I find the film fascinating, and not merely because I find Miou-Miou in it fascinating in and of herself.
One aspect of the film that I can’t ‘explain’ as it were is the sheer amount of screentime given, repeatedly and cumulatively, to Marie walking the streets of the town where this is set, old, narrow streets, squares and places, going to and from her appointments, usually in the middle to long distance. Miou-Miou makes her walk confident, almost to the point of sassy, a bold, cheerful stride, frequently decorated with a half-skip.
All together, it adds to my private reason for enjoying Miou-Miou so much, for she is so close in appearance, in face and expression, style of hair, outward confidence of manner and even her determined rejection of feminine clothing to my first long-term love. The resemblance is only that, she’s not an exact duplicate, but she is a constant reminder of my old, once dear friend.
That alone is enough to make La Lectrice an unalloyed pleasure to me, but the film’s manifest qualities are themselves enough to make this a very satisfying Sunday morning experience.