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POMME, THE HEROINE of Claude Goretta's The Lacemaker, has a face you might pass a hundred times without noticing, only to discover on the hundredth-and-first passing that it is indeed beautiful. Simple in feature and freckled, the face must be studied carefully before you begin to discern a hesitant glimmer in the eye and a warmth in the smile. You could call it childlike, but there is a certain melancholy under the surface.
Pomme (Isabelle Huppert) is an eighteen-year-old attendant in a Parisian beauty salon, yet she doesn't like to wear make-up. Her best friend is Marilyn, an older woman who is frantically trying to preserve her attractive looks in search of wealthy men. Marilyn is drawn to Pomme because she envies Pomme's innocence; although Marilyn herself dresses elaborately, she gives Pomme a plain green sweater for her birthday.
The action of Goretta's film begins when Marilyn takes Pomme to Normandy for a holiday. Marilyn soon moves in with an American tourist, while Pomme, left at home, meets Francois (Yves Beneyton), a Parisian student, and falls in love with him. Together, they go back to Paris and rent an apartment. Finding Pomme unable to meet his intellectual demands, Francois soon becomes bored with her, and they ultimately break up. Pomme suffers a nervous breakdown and enters a sanitarium.
THE LACEMAKER moves along engagingly as it traces Pomme's romance with Francois, but the film begins to falter as it explores the repercussions and aftermath of the affair. The basis of Pomme's relationships lies in her fascination with the sophisticated--exemplified in Marilyn's expensive clothing and Francois' intellectualism. Although these people strike Pomme and the audience as more "complicated" than Pomme they can't appreciate her depth of feeling. They can hurt Pomme more deeply than they can be hurt themselves. But the plot asks you to believe a capacity for hurt in Pomme so extreme that it will send her to a sanitarium. When Francois and Pomme break up, you can see she has already begun to become restless, yet her down-to-earth resilience unaccountably fails her. Why, in the last fifteen minutes, must Goretta turn his lighthearted film into something as heavy as The Story of Adele H?
The answer might lie in the fact that the primary virtue of the film--its celebration of innocence--also presents something of a drawback to the filmmaker; until the romance starts to go awry, there's not much to The Lacemaker. Goretta has established the mood through a number of endearing images: Pomme running to the salon with three melting ice cream cones, trying to keep them from dripping; Pomme interrupting a walk on the beach to brush off a sea shell; Pomme, still a virgin, lying nude in bed, her nightgown spread over the covers.
When Pomme breaks up with Francois, the mood shifts. Having stressed her childlike vulnerability, Goretta has no way to work out an ending that will allow Pomme to survive. The logical solution would have Pomme go her own way, a little wiser and stronger--but then her innocence would be lost. Instead, Goretta chooses to preserve that innocence in a sanitarium. Our last view of Pomme shows her staring into the camera with the look of a child who has been hurt deeply--too deeply to ever forget.
But Pomme isn't a child, and she certainly isn't the kind of wild-eyed romantic that Isabelle Adjani played in The Story of Adele H. And even children survive hurt--why can't Pomme? Goretta, trying to give his heroine some womanly depth without taking away her innocence, creates a victim whose suffering can't be believed.
The indecisive portrayal of Francois presents another problem for Goretta. He is introduced to us almost as a joke--emaciated, announcing to Pomme that he is a "brilliant student," he is practically a caricature of an intellectual. When Francois brings Pomme to a party, he listens attentively to a friend describe the current era as "the age of the box." Pomme looks bewildered, but it's unclear whether the narrative aims at showing her as intellectually inadequate or merely unable to swallow the crap. Given this ambivalent attitude about Francois, it's difficult to feel a deep sense of loss when the inevitable break-up occurs.
GIVEN ALL the weaknesses in the film, however, there's still Isabelle Huppert's extraordinary performance. Effortlessly, she convey's Pomme's unique charm through a crooked smile, a flash of the eyes, or a sudden grimace. Shyly licking clean a spoon of chocolate ice cream when she meets Francois, Huppert is as absorbed in the eating as she is in the flirting--her Pomme is guileless. The only flaw in the performance must be attributed to a weakness in the script: although Huppert is a convincingly distraught Pomme at the end of the film, it's difficult to believe she's the same Pomme that has appeared throughout the rest of The Lacemaker.
At the end of the film a title informs us that in an earlier century an old master would have painted Pomme as a lacemaker, implying that contemporary artists have lost interest in emotionally frail subjects. If so, Huppert's performance--for the most part--should help revive that interest.
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