A love affair unfolds on vacation at the beach, and briefly joins Francois (Yves Beneyton), and intense, middle-class university student, and an 18-year-old beautican named Pomme (Isabelle Huppert). Francois is shy, awkward, curious; Pomme is complacent, quiet as a stone, a virgin. At first glance, such a simple notion - love's attempt at bridging different worlds - seems a time-worn movie theme fraught with schmaltz potential. But in the hands of Swiss director Claude Goretta, "The Lacemaker" becomes a disturbing surprise, a series of gossamer vignettes that, shuffled together, bind with a sadness - and a steely strength.

Credit for the film's underlying tension must go to actress Isabelle Huppert. This new, appealing young talent brilliantly masks the turbulent, repressed emotions Pomme must be feeling as she accompanies a romantically experienced female coworker named Marylene (Florence Giorgetti) to this ritzy stretch of Normandy coast, meets Francois and bobs about on the swells of first romance. Huppert unfolds Pomme as slowly and imperceptibly as a blossom.

But Francois confuses Pomme's quiet with ignorance, dismisses her gentle warmth, miscalculates her potential. How Pomme feels about her existence is muffled by an inability to articulate, even as she withdraws further, cloaking her vulnerability in a performance that is utterly bleak in its self-control.

But Pomme does not evoke the cliche of woman as victim; Goretta uses her to quietly damn man's inhumanity to man. One of Francois' political activist friends compares his treatment of Pomme to an employer's capitalist exploitation of defenseless workers. But political point of view doesn't intrude on "The Lacemaker," the title alluding to 17th-century paintings that portray such simple subjects as a seamstress, a water girl, a lacemaker - someone you might pass by and never notice, were it not for an artist like Goretta.