This week at the Wellington Film Society: Isabelle Huppert’s breakthrough.
The first of three features in a short Isabelle Huppert programme (Coup de Torchon and Story of Women are to follow), The Lacemaker hasn’t aged nearly as well as its treasured lead actress; now approaching her sixties, she remains the formidable performer whose sinewy beauty has captivated a roll call of great auteurs. Over four decades, she’s scaled the heights of post-New Wave French cinema (save for collaborations with Godard and a long, fruitful partnership with the late Claude Chabrol), taking direction from the likes of Benoît Jacquot, Maurice Pialat, André Téchiné, Bertrand Tavernier, and Claire Denis, to name a few, as well as varied and adventurous turns for filmmakers abroad, most notably Michael Haneke. The movies she’ll be remembered for number at least a dozen, too many to list here. I’ll name just three of my favourites: the vicious La Cérémonie (Chabrol), the eerily pertinent Time of the Wolf (Haneke), and the brusquely humorous Amateur (for the forgotten Hal Hartley), in which Huppert plays a nymphomaniac ex-nun who’s still a virgin and writes pornographic fiction for a living. Her turn in The Lacemaker as a fey, introverted teenager was considered a breakthrough, and not surprisingly, a sign of things of come. Withdrawn and tortured, the fragile allure, the quiet intensity—all hallmarks of Huppert’s finest roles.
The only thing absent at this formative stage of Huppert’s career was a propensity for violence, one that would linger under the surface of various characters she stepped into later on. In The Lacemaker, she is decidedly timid, cloistered even, though brilliant in her portrayal all the same. Pomme, the fawn-like protagonist of the film, begins adulthood as a beauty shop assistant, and the confidant of an older, flakey workmate whom she spends a vacation at a seaside resort with. When the friend ditches her for the company of a man, she wanders the beaches and countryside alone as if auditioning for the part in an Eric Rohmer film. Eventually, she strikes up a friendship with a stringy young man, and a tentative romance blossoms. The young lovers move into a tiny apartment back in Paris, where the day-glo of their summer romance wears off, and a harsh light is cast on their polarity as a couple. They split, much to the dismay of Pomme, who, unable to cope with the separation, is committed to an institution.
This familiar, often melodramatised premise of disintegrating relations is, on the one hand, given a characteristically French treatment by Claude Goretta, who handles the material with a soft touch, offering unfussy visuals and a gently elliptical approach to the narrative. On the other, it could be said that his direction verges on incompetent, telegraphing every gesture and event in the film, right up to the final shot—a plainly obvious close-up of Huppert, who’s made to stare vacantly into the camera as if she were Garbo in Queen Christina. An uneasy amalgam of brevity and unsubtly, Goretta’s film at times feels like an unrealized masterpiece, particularly in its gorgeous, all-too-fleeting moments spent with Pomme’s mother, and the melancholy of her daughter’s departure into womanhood it observes. But The Lacemaker is more laughable than respectable, whether it is in the strained acting of Huppert’s opposite (Yves Beneyton), or the clumsiness in which it isolates her character’s place in the world. While clearly illustrating Pomme’s social alienation, both the superficial motives of her beautician friend, and the intellectual betterment of her arrogant lover mire the drama in unintentional parody, and there’s nothing worse than a badly drawn scene of French students in a huddle discussing Dialectical Marxism. In the end, anything profound Goretta has to say is contained exclusively within Huppert’s performance—her personal vision to convey the film’s essence, however inscrutably, the mark of not merely an actress, but an actress as auteur.