The Lacemaker

Jun 1, 1990

Isabelle Huppert shot from minor actress to full-fledged French star with a mesmerizing performance as, ironically, a young woman who is incapable of escaping anonymity. In Swiss director Claude Goretta’s elegant, beautifully observed tragedy/character study, Huppert is “Pomme,” a lovely, fragile, passive Parisian beauty-salon assistant who passes silently through life, taking walks, staring into space, making tea, doing chores, eating apples and ice cream. She’s uneducated, unskilled, underpaid, and unmotivated—she can’t even swim or dance, and she’s never made love—but she appreciates the simple pleasures of life. It’s fitting that she wants to become a beautician. “I could find myself in the character,” said Huppert, “in her certain kind of sensitivity and wisdom in life . . . She comes from a poor, uneducated family. She’s uncultured but that’s not her only reason for silence. In her attitude, there is something determined.”

In this sad twist on the Cinderella story, Pomme is swept away by Francois, a rich, handsome young student (Yves Beneyton). At first, he is captivated by her graceful movements, excited by her body, enticed by her virginity (which she gives him because she thinks him “considerate”), and even impressed by her “quiet, natural intelligence.” He’s lucky to have her but finally dumps her and breaks her heart because he is embarrassed by her ignorance, menial job, and unwillingness to change as he wants her to. She is shallow in his eyes, but he’s the one who’s too myopic to detect beauty. Taken from Pascal Laine’s source novel, the film’s postscript captures her essence:

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:

Seamstress

Water girl

Lacemaker.

There is no lacemaker in The Lacemaker, which was scripted by Goretta and Laine, but Pomme, who offers grace and beauty to an unreceptive world, reminds them of the neglected women of art. Indeed, the title comes from a painting by Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch artist. It seems fitting that just as Vermeer’s canvasses of solitary, anonymous working women were overlooked during his lifetime, Goretta’s film about a similar woman wasn’t fully appreciated when released in 1977. For this film is deceptively simple. For instance, it seems like a straightforward narrative about a mismatched couple, when in fact it makes many profound statements about commitments, responsibility, and sexual politics within all relationships. Also, there seems to be only minor conflict in the picture, yet there is friction in every scene. Surely Pomme has discomfort with people who are older, richer, better educated, more refined, more political, more experienced sexually, better dancers, better swimmers, more worldly, more aggressive, more critical, etc.

Most of all this is a film about a woman who is so uncomplicated that she is a mystery; and whose life is so empty that she has the capacity for giving too much love. Pomme is like Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass and Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H., other sympathetic young women who are destroyed by unrequited love for unworthy men. Again, we are placed in an awkward position of not wanting the young man to reconsider breaking up because we realize she is too good for him. Although it would mean marring perfection, we kind of wish Pomme would “improve” herself as Francois condescendingly suggests just so she would fall out of love with him once she is wiser.

Significantly, the male filmmakers are not putting down Pomme for being shallow. Instead they are showing that intellectuals like Francois can’t see the depth of Pomme’s beauty, but artists (as the one in the film who paints her from afar) and filmmakers can see clearly into her soul. It is through Jean Boffety’s intimate, penetrating camerawork that we viewers see that Pomme is special. Huppert concurs: “No one could believe she was capable of strong feelings because she was so smooth, passive on the outside. In the theater, you can’t show it. In a movie, you can go deeper and deeper inside with the camera. I think she is a very cinematic character.”