Swiss filmmaker Claude Goretta diminishes his subjects by standing on formality. As a stylist he tends to favor polished, rigidity picturesque compositions, cryptic encounters and a monotonous narrative rhythm. It's a detached style, and it appears to express a deliberate stance of emotional detachment.
Goretta's new film, "The Lace-maker," now at the West End Circle, suggests that the detachment may be motivated by ideology. It's a less perplexing frost-out than his previous movies, "The Invitation" and "The Wonderful Crook." Goretta slants a potentially affecting account of a doomed marriage between a shy shopgirl and a callow college boy for the narrowest range of meanings. After setting up a hopeless mismatch, he uses it to chastise a representative of the upper middle-class for alleged indifference to the feelings and yearnings of a socially inferior mate.
The groom, Francois, played by Yves Beneyton, is supposed to fail his timid, uneducated bride, Pomme, played by Isabelle Huppert, out of creeping class snobbery. Pomme lives in Paris with her mother and works in a beauty parlor. She meets Francois, who introduces himself as "a brilliant student of literature," while vacationing in Normandy with a man-chasing coworker. The attachment between Pomme and Francois originates in mutual loneliness and insecurity, a plausible starting point, but ends in matrimonial betrayal only because Goretta seems to need it that drastic.
Francois and Pomme look incompatible from the outset. Falling in love doesn't transform them into adorable romantic company either. On the contrary, they seem so immature that it would never occur to you to blame the failure of their union on anyone or anything, including a class system. The story might have evoked some humor or pathos if it maintained a sane perspective. One expects such a youthful romantic bubble to burst as soon as the lovers return from a holiday setting. Prolonging the disillusion serves no purpose, and Goretta certainly fails to justify it dramatically or psychologically.
Goretta finds it all too easy to scorn his hero in the process of patronizing his heroine, who is last seen stranded in a mental insitution staring accusingly or plaintively or somethingly at the camera. This fadeout echoes "The 400 Blows," of course, but it's difficult to decide whether the citation or the accusation has a hollower ring.
Goretta's approach robs both characters of will and vitality. Pomme's shyness is supposed to conceal an inner beauty and natural intelligence, but it comes closer to suggesting hopeless passivity. Her mental processes never seem elastic enough to snap in the first place. The shamelessly aggressive girls who frequent the disco in "Saturday Night Fever" might come as a relief after an evening with Pomme. Their lewdness borders on the absurd, but at least they have too much animal vitality to lend themselves to ideoligical oversimplification.
Would Pomme emerge as such an exquisite blank if Goretta actually knew a few working-class or lower-middle-class girls who asserted themselves? Given his apparent bias, Goretta might transform something like "Of Human Bondage" into ideological camp, with Midlred as a sweet, wronged prole and Philip as a heartless bourgeois seducer.
Goretta can't seem to live the double imaginative life that gives conviction and depth to the films of Claude Sautet and Alain Tanner, who identify with their characters while maintaining a critical perspective on their bhavior and social settings. Goretta takes up a position so far outside the problems and emotional lives of his characters that one may pick up only faint or ambiguous signals of distress.
"The Lacemaker" degenerates into such a put-up job of sympathy-mongering that the signals come out faintly ludicrous.