The Lacemaker
vs. Free Breathing

by Barbara Halpern Martineau

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 12-14
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

"Change the world, it needs it." — Brecht, The Measures Taken

This paper focuses on two feature films with similar stories to raise issues of how narrative film can be used either to perpetuate the patriarchal/capitalist status quo while bemoaning its consequences in personal alienation, or to propose a feminist/socialist alternative.

Some theoretical sources: (a femmiage) 

  • Julia Lesage, "Feminist Film Criticism: Theory and Practice," Women and Film, nos. 5/6, 1974: "A film which is a mere social critique ends with an audience saying, 'Isn't that terrible: I cried to see it.' A more radical work shapes the audience's mind, leaving the viewers with structures which go beyond their consciousness prior to viewing. They then have a tool with which to reevaluate that which they had previously accepted as 'natural.'"

  • Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen, Autumn 1975, analyzes the phallocentric nature of erotic pleasure in film, the ways in which that pleasure is created at the expense of women: "It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article … a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film …, in order to conceive a new language of desire."

  • Eileen McGarry, "Documentary, Realism, and Women's Cinema," Women and Film, no. 7, Summer 1975, examines the effect of "realist" documentaries and while opposing the illusion of reality on theoretical grounds, notes that a limited realism can be used to effect feminist goals.

  • Christine Gledhill, "Whose Choice? Teaching Films about Abortion," Screen Education, no. 24, Autumn 1977, argues: "Anti-realist theories of political filmmaking … are difficult to maintain with any rigor where the context is the specific, newly developing consciousness of a particular movement whose members' lives and experiences have been systematically excluded from representation."

  • Carol Duncan, "The Aesthetics of Power in Modern Erotic Art," Heresies  no. 1, January 1977, demonstrates the male perspective of most modern  erotic art (taking up approximately where John Berger's Ways of Seeing leaves off), and concludes: "Art and artists are made on earth, in history, in organized society. And in the modern era as in the past, what has been sanctified as high art and called True, Good and Beautiful is born of the aspirations of those who are empowered to shape culture."

  • Marta Meszaros, interviewed in Hungarofilm, no. 2, 1976: "Ever since my first feature film, THE GIRL, was made, I have, with the obstinacy of a mule, pursued my attempt to study the characters and types of women with strong personalities, capable of forming decisions for themselves … This emancipation of women ought to be encouraged deliberately, haying secured equal job opportunities with men, women must win equality in the sphere of private relationships."
  • Marta Meszaros, interviewed in Hungarofilm, no. 2, 1977: "It is a woman's state of being subjected to man, on historical, emotional, and social levels, that I am concerned with … I believe the fundamental question of any relationship to be the need for people — men and women alike — to understand themselves … I believe feminism is one of the fundamental problems of this century."

The two films in question are THE LACEMAKER by Claude Goretta, Switzerland/France, 1977, and FREE BREATHING by Marta Meszaros, Hungary, 1973. Both are classical narratives in the sense that they have recognizable central characters, plots which proceed chronologically, and a certain consistency of time and place. Both use techniques long familiar to film audiences, of occasionally disrupting the continuities, and using images and sounds expressively as well as naturalistically. Both are "about" a love affair between a young working-class woman and a young bourgeois male student. [1] In both cases the conflict can be seen to involve class and sex role differences. And there are a number of parallel scenes: e.g., when she meets his parents, when she meets his friends, when he meets her friends, when they first make love, when she is seen at work. Even, very specifically, in both films there are scenes where linguistics, more precisely a linguistic discussion of phonemes, is used to illustrate the gap in interest and comprehension between the working-class woman and the student. In both films there are scenes where the woman is shown naked, bathing. In both films, with some important exceptions, the camera movements are comparable, with fluid tracking shots used to express the changing relationship of the characters. Both films use popular and classical music both naturalistically and expressively, as directly related to the visual image (i.e., we see the source of the music or it is implied) and also as part of an obviously separate sound track (movie music). There are enough similarities to underscore the very striking differences.

FREE BREATHING is available in Canada in l6mm but has not been shown commercially in North America. It has been widely distributed theatrically in socialist countries where, like Meszaros' other six features (this was her fourth), it has met with considerable acclaim and been discussed primarily in terms of "the woman's point of view."

When THE LACELIAKER was shown at the Fine Arts Cinema in Toronto in spring of 1978, it grossed more than any other film previously shown at that theatre. It met with very favorable critical response in Europe and the U.S., and has been discussed in terms of Claude Goretta's oeuvre (it's his fifth feature), also in the context of recent Swiss cinema. Guglielno Volonterio in Image et son (February 1978) sees the film as an example of Goretta's interest in the opposition between daily life in the city and the extraordinary breathing space afforded by a vacation in the country. He makes no mention of either sexism or class conflict as possible concerns. [2]

Although THE LACEMAKER has been quite successful by "art film" standards, it's not a big commercial hit. It breaks no new ground either formally or in its subject matte. It hasn't raised controversy. It doesn't advocate revolution or, explicitly, anything else. It's a rather modest little film, nicely made, moving for audiences I've seen it with, who are almost entirely young and apparently upwardly mobile middle class. So why discuss it? Why, indeed, attack it?

I want to attack THE LACEMAKER because it had a considerable impact on me, because it reminded me of FREE BREATHING, which I consider to be an important feminist film, and because the very similarities of the two films underscore for me the differences between a feminist/ socialist creative perspective and a bourgeois/ patriarchal creative perspective. (I consider both perspectives to be potentially creative, but only the former can help to effect necessary social change.) If by analyzing the ways in which a modest little film "stands for" the less modest claims of patriarchal bourgeois art, I can provide grounds for analyzing more "important" films, the effort seems worthwhile. More constructively, I hope that analysis of THE LACEMAKER will shed light on the achievement of FREE BREATHING.

Briefly then, the "story" [3] of THE LACEMAKER: Beatrice, nicknamed Pomme, is a sweet young girl (one can drown in such sweetness) who works as an assistant in a beauty parlor and lives with her mother, who works in a grocery store and has long since been deserted by Pomme's father. An aura of pathos bathes the two women. Pomme's only friend is Marilyn, a glamorous hairdresser, who has been dating a married men for three years and is dumped by him shortly after the film begins. Marilyn's character is defined for us when we glimpse a picture of Marilyn Monroe on her living room wall during a scene where she raves hysterically to Pomme after being dropped. Pomme and Marilyn go on holiday to the seashore. Marilyn goes off with an American tourist and Pomme meets François, a student of literature, whose parents live in an old country house — father is a country lawyer and raises dogs; mother makes tea, is well-read, and putters.

Pomme and François fall in love. He is bothered by her menial, boring job, interested in her virginity, obsessed by her body. She trusts him. Back in the city they live together in a garret room. His friends accept her — she seems awed by them. He is increasingly troubled by her complacency, ashamed of her ignorance, and, shortly after introducing her to his parents (his mother comments that Pomme seems "decent" — honnete, the French original, carries more stigma), he tells her that it won't work between them. She goes beck to her mother, fells ill, end ends up in an insane asylum where he visits her months later. The film ends with: François crying in his car, Pomme looking up from her knitting at the camera, and then the written words on a black screen:

"He will have passed by her, right by her, without really noticing her, because she was one of those who gives no clues, who has to be questioned patiently, one of those difficult to fathom. Long ego, a painter would have made her the subject of a genre painting: a seamstress, a water girl, lace-maker."

Briefly, the story of FREE BREATHING: Jutka works in a textile mill. She's an attractive young women, likes to swim. Early in the film she's seen having an argument with a man, evidently a worker, who wants to marry her. She refuses, he hits her. She's rescued by a waitress at the cafe, end runs off crying, is next seen in a shower, face lifted to the water. Jutka has several women friends at the factory. One of them is also her roommate, and the two girls go to dances at the University. Jutka meets a student  there and tells shim she is also a student, named Kati. As she explains to her roommate later, she's had previous experience of telling the truth and being dumped by students she's met. She and the young men fell in love. She tells him she's not a student but a worker, and that her name is Jutka. When she meets his friends, she pretends for a while to be a student but finally tells them too that she does shift work and that she feels uncomfortable with them, also that they don't understand her problems.

She wants her lover to introduce her to his parents. After an argument, humorously presented to her advantage, he agrees. His parents are "red bourgeoisie." Once workers they now own a large house which the mother cleans herself after working all day — she's especially proud of her knickknacks. Jutka pretends to be a student whose parents also own a large house. She convinces her truckdriver father and his second wife to meet the boy's parents and pass themselves off as her own prosperous parents (her real mother refuses to be part of the game). The meeting is successful, but Jutka, sickened by the hypocrisy, smashes a dish in the kitchen. Finally she tells the boy's parents that she is a worker. His mother asks her to leave, and she does, telling the boy it's all over between then. Jutka is sees crying is the factory as she works at her loom, then last seen is the shower, face lifted to the water.

Both films are infinitely more subtle and complex then the story outlines suggest; both have humorous and poetic moments; both use images end sounds to carry significance effectively and skillfully. However, the impression given by comparing the two "stories" is I think faithful to the films' texts. FREE BREATHING portrays a movement towards independence and self-awareness on the part of a young working-class women. THE LACEMAKER is a genre painting in filmic terms of an age-old subject — a vulnerable, mysterious young working women, significant not for whet she thinks or does, but for what she represents to men. She is important insofar as she is used to define a male attitude — she herself has neither importance nor strength.

Immediately I need to qualify this judgment. It's not that Goretta sees no value in Beatrice/Pomme, but that her value lies in whet she has to give to another, essentially in whet she has to offer François, who is in that sense a male audience surrogate. Her strength, which is primarily mysterious, is not available for her own use. And she is defined almost exclusively by the film in visual terms, as a physical presence, as a nude, in Berger's sense of the word, [4] as the subject of a genre painting. Jutka/Kati, on the other hand, defines herself, is self-aware, articulate, the initiator of action, heard as well as seen, and seen primarily in terms of her relationship to herself, then her work and her friends, then her lover. It's clear at the end of FREE BREATHING that she is healthy, in touch with her feelings, capable of continuing to work and live as a whole person. In contrast, Beatrice/Pomme is, at the end of THE LACEMAKER, to use the phrase of Simone de Beauvoir, "a women destroyed."

A graphic example of this distinction is the difference between the representation of each women undressed. Jutka is seen naked in two scenes: the shower scenes at the beginning and end of the film, scenes shot in a very similar manner with a slight difference, which has enormous impact given the context of the film. In the first shower scene Jutka is alone in the frame, shown in an extreme close-up shot which begins on her face, then moves down to just below her navel and up again, followed by a cut to her face lifted to the water. The shot emphasizes the texture of her skin, the drops of water, the sensuous pleasure she takes is the shower. Following the fight in the cafe, which ends with a close up of the man's face, the shower scene also suggests cleansing, decontamination, release. The final shower scene, also following a painful breakup with a man, but immediately preceded by Jutka's tears in the factory, is identical to the first, except that there is no cut to her face — instead the camera continues its slow pan up her body to rest on her face. The impression of wholeness is supported by the context of the shot, which also, by its closeness rather than its angle, suggests the awareness of her own body that a woman would have in the shower.

Pomme is seen undressed in full figure three times in THE LACEMAKER, the first time when going to bed alone after she has met François and before they make love — she is obviously thinking of him. The second time she is washing at the basin in their shared room — he wakes and calls her to him. The third time is when their relationship is already on the rocks — he is standing at the window, fully clothed, his back to the camera and to Pomme. This scene begins with a shot of Pomme unhooking her bra; she then rises and walks over to François, stands beside him, back to the camera. He puts his arm around her, then drops it, continuing to stare out the window. She turns back to the bed and puts on her nightgown. In each of these three shots Pomme's body is presented to the spectator, framed, lit like a nude, an art object, offered up to François who functions as the audience surrogate.

Comparing these scenes, I found that the camera's closeness to Jutka's body in the FREE BREATHING scenes is consistent with the sympathetic presentation of Jutka as subject in the film as a whole; while the distanced, aesthetic framing of Pomme in THE LACEMAKER is part of an ambivalence which characterizes the film and is not resolved, except by a reading of Pomme as object rather than subject. Goretta is certainly aware that François exploits Pomme. The script puts this awareness explicitly into the mouth of the only strong female in the film, Francois' friend Maryann. Maryann, with her boyfriend, is close to François, but unlike him she and her boyfriend are politically active. She tells Francois that he has treated Pomme the way employers treat workers: "You used her, then fired her." François angrily refuses her interpretation and she goes on: "Whatever you can't understand, you reject."

My point is that, while criticizing this attitude on the part of François, Goretta also does not understand Pomme. And while seeming to support her, he in fact rejects her by objectifying her and having her end up as she does. [5] Like so many other representations of women in patriarchal art, Pomme is the incomprehensible, the mysterious one. She is vulnerable, fragile, a vessel, a receptacle. At the end, though shattered end useless, she remains both beautiful and mysterious, gazing unfathomable at the camera  — she is Dietrich, Garbo, accursed Eve (having been shown twice munching an apple!). Her oppression is lamentable but inevitable, and all the sensitive artist can do is to portray her with sympathy. It is precisely in this echo of centuries of patriarchal art that Goretta's film achieves the depth and resonance it undeniably has. It is precisely this echo which confuses and renders impotent a potential insight of the film, which lies in the class conflict represented by François and Pomme.

Pomme is seen munching an apple as François studies. He looks up and tells her not to worry about the noise — he hears every sound when he works. She meekly puts down the apple end goes to make tea. He starts attacking her for continuing in her terrible job. Why doesn't she improve herself, take courses? She agrees that he's right, tears rolling down her face. The fact is she likes her job, is intimidated by intellectuals, has nothing to say to them. In an earlier scene, also munching an apple, Pomme asks François what "dialectic" means, as he used it when talking with his friends. He tells her it's connected with "dialectical materialism" but flounders there and doesn't go on, asking her instead if his friends bore her. She replies that they're very smart and that Maryann and Gerard seem very happy together.

The way both scenes are constructed shows Pomme as François' victim, as hapless and on another wavelength, which she can't articulate to his satisfaction. What they don't show, what isn't shown anywhere in the film, is an alternative possibility, what dialectical materialism could mean to Pomme if explained in terms of her own job, her low wages, which François resents but neither explains nor seems to understand politically.

The two parallel scenes in FREE BREATHING do present the alternative. The boy is studying and Jutke puts on a record, loud. He turns it down, she turns it up. He is furious. Cut to Jutka in the factory, machines roaring. It is Jutka who explains to her boyfriend and the other students that they have no understanding of the problems of factory work, and her who supports another women at the factory who wants to organize for better pay. It is clear throughout FREE BREATHING that class conflict is a living reality for Jutka, which she understands and can articulate. Her encounters with the boy's parents clearly present this theme of classes, which is obviously a fundamental aspect of Meszaros' own thinking. [6] Goretta, on the other hand, is not at all clear about class conflict, although he's obviously aware that a problem exists, but it is submerged under the dominant image of female mysteriousness and vulnerability represented by Pomme. What is clear to me is that Meszaros' film expresses the socialist feminist concerns which reflect and comment upon the ideology of her Hungarian communist milieu, end that Goretta's film expresses the bourgeois liberal concerns of his patriarchal/capitalist milieu.

The issue raised for feminist file theorists however is more complex. The comparison of these two films does not bear out some recent assumptions that classical narrative film is by definition oppressive to women, and that it is essential to disrupt the narrative conventions radically in order to achieve a new language. [7] On the contrary, it is possible to read Goretta's film, with its final disturbing shot of Beatrice/Pomme looking up from her knitting directly at the camera, followed by another kind of intervention in the form of written words on the screen, as a more open-ended structure incorporating a critique of its own methods, than FREE BREATHING, which ends with a repetition of a scene from early in the film and which can be seen as a closed structure which takes its methods for granted. [8]

Rather than to the formal structures, it is to the different sets of signifieds in the two films that we must first look in order to understand their very different perspectives on social change. There we find Goretta's film presenting a closed world of aesthetic reference. In a sense the whole film can be seen as the genre painting referred to in the final quotation, even including an homage to Renoir in a scene in the country explicitly  compared by François to a Renoir painting, where a bearded man keeps staring at Pomme and is angrily accosted by François. All is well, however; the bearded man is sketching Pomme, and François too. Francois apologizes profusely. Artists are obviously exempt from the charge of lechery. Art is pure. According to this perspective, which is formalistic, in which genre paintings are entirely defined by their attention to light and shapes, concept is of minimal importance. But all the references in Goretta's film, aesthetic, musical, cinematic, circle back to the relationship between Pomme and Francois, and the inexorable placing of that relationship as fixed by centuries of romantic tradition, from which no escape is envisaged. [9]

In FREE BREATHING there is continual reference to two worlds which the relationship between Jutka and the student cannot encompass, a world of work and production, signified by the shots in the factory and also by shots of workers in the fields, which have very different connotations than the shots of Pomme and the rich old ladies she serves in the beauty parlor. There are many other people in the working world, many other possibilities open to Jutka. Another world in FREE BREATHING is the world of sensuous relationship, based on Jutka's relationship to her own body, and almost always signified by shots of her in water, shown as a space where she can breathe freely and strongly, supported by an element at once more fluid and more dense than the arid and rarefied atmosphere of the university lecture hall where the students are lulled by droning discussions of phonemes. I find it interesting that linguistics, in both films, is the academic subject used to illustrate the gap between the working-class woman and the bourgeois man. Both films lay stress on names and labels, and both women have two names, although with different motivations and effects. Jutka uses the name Kati deliberately, conscious of its middle-class connotation, while Beatrice is called Pomme (Apple) for reasons which seen connected to the filmmaker's image of her, just as the name Beatrice evokes Dante's muse, a reference out of her framework but evidently familiar to François.

In his linguistics scene, Goretta blurs the suggestion that the dominant language is patriarchal by having Maryann present to explain a linguistic text to Francois while Pomme irons his shirts. Maryann is used later to similarly blur distinctions when she makes the film's only reference to industrial struggle, in Pomme's absence. That is, Maryann's presence in the film suggests that women need only be educated in order to transcend oppression. She is last shown as glowingly pregnant, with no indication that her political awareness will be altered by her experience of domesticity in a patriarchal system. What this does is to shift the burden of Pomme's oppression entirely onto her class status, minimizing the importance of sexual oppression.

On the other side, in contrast to the scenes of Jutka swimming with ease and grace, Pomme is shown as awkward in outdoor situations, unable to swim, expressing enjoyment by a few stilted skips in the sand, most at ease when she is folding sheets or preparing food. François comments on her grace while working.

One conclusion to be drawn from this comparison of the two films is that, while classical narrative can easily, very easily be used to reinforce the dominant ideology of advanced capitalism even while expressing ambivalence about the cruelty that ideology implies, it can also be used to interrogate the politics of personal relationships within their class context, if the filmmaker has a clear political framework for her creative perceptions. That this distinction begins on the level of "story" rather than on the level of formal structure is an important indication for future directions in both analysis and production.


1. This is a modern variation on the Cinderella story, long popular in literary and filmic naturalism, and recently reversed, with dubious effect, by Lina Wertmuller in SWEPT AWAY. The story has provided resources for feminist/socialist analysis dating as far back as Richardson's Pamela, and including Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, and many more.

2. An introductory article to the Image et Son special section on Swiss cinema points out that in the past few years vital young Swiss filmmakers have been increasingly selling out their interest in critical interrogation of Swiss society because of the need to seek adequate financial backing primarily by Franco-Swiss co-production. THE LACEMAKER isn't mentioned; however it is set in France and carries no particular Swiss reference. It is a Franco-Swiss-Germanic co-production.

3. "Story" seems more appropriate than "plot," but neither conveys the problems of truncation and distortion inevitable in summary.

4. Berger contrasts nudity and nakedness in Ways of Seeing: the nude is the art object; the naked person is one without clothes.

5. John Berger does the same thing in Part Two of his BBC television series, Ways of Seeing: The Nude, in the way he presents the women brought in to discuss his thesis at the end of the program — while discussing his thesis about the way women have been objectified in Renaissance art they themselves are objectified by the camera and set-up of the scene.

6. The idea for FREE BREATHING came to Meszaros when she was collecting material for a documentary on women in textile mills, AT THE LORINO SPINNERY, 1971.

7. This assumption, first made by Claire Johnston in "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema," Notes on Women's Cinema, 1973, is closely related to assumptions about the negative implications of realism which Christine Gledhill challenges in "Whose Choice" referred to above.

8. Meszaros did move to a more formally open structure in her sixth feature, NINE MONTHS, which has a very different kind of disruptive ending, in which the actress playing the central character actually gives birth in front of the camera, clearly a case of form emerging from content, and a further argument in defense of realism among Gledhill's lines. Also note that Meszaros, like so many male directors, but unlike most women, has been able to develop her potential as a director by making a number of features. I find that her development has tended to be first towards clear strong narrative, then towards formal innovation.

9. Cf. Louis Althusser's discussion of the Piccolo Teatro's production of El Nost Milan in his book For Marx, which points out the political implications of such a closed circle of reference as I see in THE LACEMAKER:

"Strictly speaking there is no dialectic of consciousness … which could reach reality itself by virtue of its own contradictions … consciousness does not accede to the real through its own internal development, but by the radical discovery of what is other than itself (his italics)."

This essay is based on a paper presented at the Film Studies Association of Canada conference on "Nationhood" during a session on "Film and Social Change," May 1978.