A few weeks ago I wrote about a film, Looking For Mr. Goodbar, that has never been “officially” released on DVD, and officially remains out-of-print. Another film I would be happy to see properly restored on DVD has been out-of-print for a couple of decade is the 1977 French film La Dentellière, also known by its English title, The Lacemaker, directed by Claude Goretta and starring Isabelle Huppert and Yves Beneyton. There are of course “unofficial” DVDs of this title available, picture quality ranging from unwatchable (the Asian-pirated version you find on Amazon) to merely “watchable.” A PAL TV widescreen broadcast rip is the best I’ve seen of this film, and I had to use a software application to “burn” English subtitles that were poorly translated from the French onto it.
There seems to be no explanation for The Lacemaker’s failure to be released on DVD. It isn’t “controversial” or violent or overly sexual, and it is sympathetic to its female characters. Criterion, which specializes in restoring older, “classic” films, did release The Lacemaker on laserdisc back in 1990. I admit I was a big laserdisc guy when I was in the Army; in fact, I was the only soldier in the entire company who owned a laserdisc player. I still own one of the LD of The Lacemaker, although I no longer have a player to run it. I do have a DVD-r ripped from the LD, but because it is in analogue rather than digital format, it looks little better than an old VHS copy. I only keep the disc as a curiosity from the past, as big as an old vinyl LP, a shiny oversized Christmas ornament.
I wondered why Criterion had not released this film on DVD and contacted them, insisting that this time they reply to my query. I was informed that it was not due to a lack of interest on their part; in fact, Criterion was keen to release Lacemaker on DVD and possibly Blu-ray. However, they had only been granted a license for a laserdisc release, and they had been unable to re-license this film and other titles that it had previously released on that format. If Criterion ever regained licensing rights for these films, I was told, they certainly would release them on DVD.
Now about the film. It seems to have been partially inspired by the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, whose principle subjects tended to be women engaged in simple activities in closed spaces, their demeanor suggesting an “inner harmony.” One of his paintings, “The Lacemaker,” was used as the title of the film; although there is no “lacemaker” in the film, it is clearly meant to convey a state of being.
The story is deceptively simple, its denouement fairly predictable, yet leaves one with contradictory sentiments. Despite the film’s efforts to manipulate the viewer’s sympathies, no one here is a villain, and those who offer advice and observations often seem not to know of what they speak. This is contrary to most critics view of the film, but I'm just calling it how I see it.
The story concerns Beatrice (Huppert), or “Pomme” as she is called by those closest to her (“apple” in its literal translation)—who is “training” to be a hairdresser, although her tasks tend toward the menial. She lives with her mother, but spends considerable time with her one friend, a hairdresser named Marylene (Florence Giorgetti) who seems to be a slightly unstable. Marylene is apparently attached to Pomme because of her need for a companion who not too judgmental, as Pomme rarely speaks unless spoken to, and then only in curt phrases that never suggests an opinion of her own. We learn than Pomme’s father left her mother and herself years ago; it is not clear what effect this had on her personality, although we are supposed to assume that it did.
After a period of neurotic behavior after her latest boyfriend phones her to announce their break-up, Marylene decides to take Pomme along with her on a vacation to some sea-side resort town. After a dull day or two they go to a discotheque, where Pomme merely sits quietly while the no longer young Marylene makes a fool of herself trying to impress a “hip” crowd with her dance moves. The next day Pomme walks the beach alone and stops at a café, where she has a dish of ice cream. A slim young man wearing a tennis outfit is seen coming down the sidewalk, picks-up a newspaper, notices Pomme sitting alone, enters the café, and comes back out and sits at a table next to her. His name is Francois, and he attempts to engage in conversation with her. He is a university student and from an upper-middle class family.
Francois’ attempts at being witty, knowing and even self-deprecating only draw polite smiles and a word or two in response from Pomme. The scene abruptly ends, and the next day we see Pomme walking the beach, and Francois apparently driving around in search of her. He gives up and plays tennis by himself, hitting a ball against a fence. Pomme may or may not be looking for him too, since she passes the tennis courts, but after he left. Eventually they encounter each other along the beachside, where they both confess that they do not like mingling with the “multitude.” Again he attempts to converse with her, but if he finds her lack of response frustrating, he does not show it. She simply tags along, smiling whenever he addresses her. They go to a casino, where Francois loses money.
Next they are in Pomme’s beach cottage, where Francois is clearly embarrassed at his failure to impress her at the casino. They have a small supper, and afterwards they just sit around a table in silence, leaving Francois uncomfortable and Pomme continuing to smile and responding to his question with brief affirmatives or negatives. Francois, by now quite uncomfortable, looking about and notices a volume of Guy De Maupassant stories on a table, and reads a poetic passage from the book, about the refraining from frightening away bird by keeping silent; it seems to be an “apt” description of the present circumstances.
Next they are in an old World War II cemetery, where they encounter Marylene and her a new boyfriend, a middle-aged rather than younger man. Francois doesn’t seem pleased with meeting them, probably because he is uncomfortable with strangers. Afterwards Francois and Pomme take a drive and he questions her on her ambitions, discovering that not only does she have none other than being a hairdresser, she is not particularly curious about the world, her life revolving around “work” and “home.” She admits to never having had a boyfriend, and to being a virgin, which apparently causes her no embarrassment. She says that boys do not interest her, but Francois is “different.” He is “polite.” That night when Pomme goes to bed, it is clear that she is preparing for the probability of consummating their relationship.
Next Francois takes Pomme to high sea-side cliff, where he tests her “trust” in him by following his directions with her eyes closed, which seems to please him. Then he takes her to his family’s home in the country, while his parents have gone away. That night Pomme sleeps with Francois, and soon they appear to be a happy couple. Pomme takes him to visit her mother, and again Francois seems uncomfortable in the presence of a stranger. Pomme moves in with Francois, and she seems to be happy playing house. His friend Gerard meets her and tells Francois that whoever marries her will do very well. “You thinks so?” says Francois, with just a touch of doubt. Later he tries to persuade Pomme to “develop her personality,” perhaps attending classes. Is Francois so self-conscious about his own status that he apparently feels that Pomme would be a drag on his ambitions, whatever they may be? Is he afraid that her personality might possibly be interpreted by some as a mild case of mental retardation? Pomme is clearly not that, but in less sympathetic company she would seem distinctly unimpressive. But Pomme likes to live “like this”—meaning quiet and simple, and she prefers to “learn things” from Francois.
We then see Francois in attendance of a discussion group on Marxist ideology; a lot of high-sounding words are used, and Pomme is silent throughout. It is not clear if she understood anything they said. Afterward, Francois senses that she was “bored,” and when he questions her, it is clear that she didn’t understand the concepts of the discussion. It is at this point that Francois has clear doubts about their relationship, although Pomme behaves as if nothing has changed. They encounter Marylene and they stop at her apartment; once more we see Francois with his nervous tic, picking at his ear when he is uncomfortable. Later he advises Pomme to find another job, other than washing the hair of old ladies. It is not their—or rather, his—world. The smile starts to fade from her face. Then Francois introduces Pomme to his parents. During dinner, Pomme—who says nothing at all—embarrasses Francois by choking badly on some food; while his father is nonjudgmental, his mother says little in the way of support.
Later we see Francois crossing a busy city street, not waiting for Pomme to cross with him. Theirs is clearly a relationship on the downs, at least as far as he is concerned. She undresses for him, but now even sex with her doesn’t interest him. Francois tells her that they will never be happy, that they are too different. It is clear, however, that is more true for him that it is for her. He takes her back to her mother’s appartment. His friends tell him they would have made a good couple, but for him too much was “closed.” They scold him that there was so much she could have given him, that he is condemning himself to his own private little world.
Meanwhile Pomme is clearly suffering from a breakdown and a complete withdrawal from life. Eventually she winds up in a psychiatric hospital. Francois feels remorse, and resolves to visit her. His friends call him a “strange fellow” and he “acted badly,” but agree to accompany him. Does he feel he made a mistake? Francois and Pomme speak in banal pleasantries on the grounds, but surprisingly reveals that she retains the pleasant memories of their time together. But she also reveals evidence of withdrawal into a fantasy world, when she tells him of visit to Greece; we discover later that this is figment of her imagination, drawn from tourist posters of Greece in the sitting room at the hospital. She will be leaving the hospital soon, but she is clearly not “healed.” At the end of the film, Pomme is sitting at a table and turns toward the camera and stares at the viewer; it is the expression we see of the lacemaker in the Vermeer painting. What are we to read in her expressionless face?
It would be easy to make simplistic interpretations about the meaning of this film, just as Francois’ friends do about his “behavior.” But two “shy” people generally don’t make good matches; not too long ago I quoted this passage from a Paul Simon song: “Some people never say those words ‘I love you.’ It’s not their style to be so bold. Some people never say those words ‘I love you.’ But like a child their longing to be told.” You can see the potential problem in a relationship between two people when one or more parties act in this way. Pomme’s thoughts and feelings are a complete mystery to Francois; yes, we can speculate that Francois should have understood her better, although this is the self-serving opinion of an outside observer. Pomme certainly acts out a typical life of domesticity, yet it is difficult to live with a person who will not talk at all; you have to pretend at times that they are not even present.
Francois, who we know is doesn’t like to “mingle” when we see him playing tennis by himself, initially sees in Pomme as someone who can relate to him in his reserve, but she is apparently less “reserved” than he, comfortable in her own skin. Francois does everything he can think of to persuade her to expand her mind, but it remains difficult to get more than a few simple words out of her, conveying her feelings or thoughts mainly through facial expressions. Perhaps she could be described as “enigmatic,” but only in a very limited way, but this only frustrates Francois.
Francois is told by his friends that anyone would be “fortunate” to marry Pomme, but he can only respond with a “really?” He is doubtful. If he was less intellectually and socially conscious, perhaps he would be more accommodating. Sex isn’t necessarily what he’s after; he wants someone to talk to, but it is simply impossible to hold even a semblance of an philosophical conversation with her. He was attracted to her because she was alone, like he was; but otherwise they had nothing in common. His friends were more than unsympathetic to his “plight,” and they only saw what she could “give” him, without ever explaining what that was. That did not see that Francois did not wish to have a life partner who was happy just to do housework for him; he wanted someone be a real “partner” in life.
Nevertheless, we can deduce that if in fact Pomme suffered from a emotional collapse after the relationship ended, then her feelings about it had to be very strong; there can be no other explanation for it other than she was always a “borderline” personality. To her mother and Marylene, she was just still a child, to be guided through life. But to Francois, she seemed almost indifferent to life; after all, she expressed almost no opinion about the world around her. She was just “living. But in Francois, who was “polite” and shy, this was someone who she could conceivably trust, and it was clearly difficult for someone like her to find someone like Francois to share her life with. But can we fault Francois, the “intellectual,” for wanting a companion he could at least talk to? Silence is not always “golden.”
The film ends with a quote: “He would have passed her without seeing her. Because she was one of those souls that do not show any sign, but those for whom it is necessary to question patiently, and you must know how to look upon them. A painter would have made her the subject of a tableau. She would have been a launderer, a water carrier, or a Lacemaker.” Was Francois “patient” enough to see their relationship through? Clearly not. Perhaps if he was less imaginative had accepted her as she was, someone who was content to simply stand silently by his side, so long as he remained “polite” and “reserved”? Or should he be judged harshly for not wanting just this in a partner?