Sometimes, it requires a painter to appreciate beauty, says Swiss director Claude Goretta, and writer Pascal Lainé, upon whose novel the film, "La dentellière" [Eng. Title: The Lacemaker] is based. Even the title alludes to Johannes Vermeer's famous painting.
Beatrice aka Pomme (Isabelle Huppert) is eighteen, lives with her mum, and works as an apprentice at a Parisian hair salon. She is pretty, but also too modest to flaunt her good looks. She's kind, and keen to help others, unlike her older colleague at work, the attention-seeking Marylène (Florence Giorgetti). Pomme and Marylène go on a vacation to a seaside town in Normandy, and that's when Pomme, having been momentarily abandoned by Marylène, meets François (Yves Beneyton), a philosophy student from a rich family, also on vacation.
François is fascinated by Pomme's simplicity, her looks, but particularly her virtue (he even asks her on one occasion if she was a virgin, a fact she acknowledges), and after initiating her to sex, believes he loves her, and invites her to live with him in his Paris. Pretty soon however, he notices that there's very little in common between them - intellect or interests, and begins to resent her sweet (compliant, and devoid of opinion) nature, and becomes increasingly embarrassed about having her as his girlfriend. He suggests they go their separate ways, and a heartbroken Pomme neither resists nor tries to reason with him - she meekly accepts his decision and moves out.
But depression will take its toll on Pomme's health, which will see her end up in a sanatorium. When he hears about her mental illness, François visits her with trepidation and also a sense of guilt, but during their conversation, Pomme startles him by claiming that she's actually quite happy these days, and that she also travels on holiday to Greek islands, often having flings with various men. The closing shot is of Pomme casting an enigmatic gaze towards the camera, like one of Vermeer's famous paintings.
The events described above are mostly from François' perspective. Pomme's view, on the other hand, could indeed be different - Pomme may not be as dull as François thinks she is - in fact she comes across as far more observant, having 'lived' life, unlike François, merely reading about it from a sheltered environment. She doesn't argue or raise an opinion, not to withdraw herself from engaging with François and his friends, but perhaps because her accumulated wisdom had taught her that there might after all never be a single truth to pursue with conviction. Who then, is the more enlightened of the two.
The film is not just a melodrama resting on the incompatibility of different social classes, but also about people's preconceptions, and limited tolerance, or willingness to look beyond the surface. Pomme's viewpoint as opined above, isn't something that I conjured up - it is Ms. Huppert's own interpretation of her character, explained in an interview to a magazine after the film's initial release. Small wonder that her performance was so widely hailed that it also earned her a BAFTA award. I'm convinced that it is Isabelle Huppert's individual performance that makes this film as good as it is. Needless to say, it is Highly Recommended Viewing..!
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The Nudity: Florence Giorgetti and Isabelle Huppert
Claude Goretta isn't particularly known for using nudity in his films, but this one is a pleasant exception, and Ms. Huppert in particular, is at her youthful best.