“Directing doesn’t start on the floor”: Claude Goretta and Isabelle Huppert Interviewed

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Lacemaker (La Dentellière) was shown in the 1977 New York Film Festival. Claude Goretta, the director, and Isabelle Huppert, who costarred with Yves Beneyton, were interviewed before the film had opened commercially. The Lacemaker is the story of a young girl, employed at a beauty parlor, who falls in love with a student very different from her in aspirations and in intellect. The affair fails and the girl is left suffering from a kind of nervous breakdown.

Judith M. Kass: In the films of yours that have played here, The Invitation and The Wonderful Crook (Pas si méchant que ça…), events give the appearance of going along well and then something happens to disrupt the order. Does the idea of change causing social and personal disruption interest you particularly?

Isabelle Hupper in The Lacemaker
Isabelle Huppert in "The Lacemaker"

Claude Goretta: What interests me is the idea of common lives which can show us that people are deep inside a situation in which they can express something else, something the others don’t see. I’ve always been interested in people who don’t always have the means of expressing their sensibility. In The Invitation the people show the others very little of themselves. They have a richness inside that others don’t notice. And the problem for me as the director is to show the audience that the people on the screen are much more interesting than what they show to the others. It’s the problem of “the lacemaker.” She’s a girl without culture and she’s naturally silent. And people today, facing this sort of character, take the silence as a denial and not as a way of accepting the world. They think the silence is something against them. The problem of the student is that he has a theoretical idea of life and no experience at all. He can’t have a fundamental communication with the girl because he lacks experience of life. He’s not a bad boy; he’s not worse than the others. But this experience is a flop for him because of his youth. For me, the students are caught in a sort of closed world. Their generosity, all the high ideals of life, are theoretical. When they are confronted with real life, it’s quite different. I think in our lives we always have been either somebody’s lacemaker or somebody’s François [the student]. But we are always responsible for somebody else, but we don’t know it sometimes—that we are responsible for the other.

You know The Lacemaker is the title of a painting by Vermeer, the Delft. What is Vermeer’s world? The world of the Dutch painter, it’s a world of silence and slowmotion life, very slow. And she’s like the lacemaker; she expresses herself with her gestures. [The epilogue to the film reads: “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 ago, a painter would have made her the subject of a genre painting. She would have been a
Seamstress
Water girl
Lacemaker.]

JMK: Do you feel that some of the characters in your films are politically and emotionally underdeveloped because they live in such a protected society?

CG: They don’t ask questions; they are victims of the structure, of a way of life. I was always impressed because—I worked a lot for the information department of TV—for ten years I travelled around the world, making documentary films about people facing real problems in life—starvation, poverty. [Among others, Goretta made Trois Portraits sovietiques and L’Irlande.] When I came back to Geneva, Switzerland, I could meet people without real problems. I felt that they were not open to the other problems, and that’s the main theme of my film, that people don’t look at the others with really open eyes. They are victims of a sort of structure of life and they are much more than they can express about themselves.

JMK: Did you intend The Invitation to be political, to be about change and people’s effect on one another?

CG: Or the impossibility of change. Yes, of course. There are two people searching for their freedom, the butler and the young girl. For the butler to be able to find his freedom, he must be lonely. That is the pessimistic approach. And the young girl, because she doesn’t accept the hypocrisy of the group, she will be lonely maybe. I don’t know. I don’t answer these questions. I’m just looking at a certain reality. I’m just posing the problem and trying to show life and people that the cinema doesn’t usually approach.

JMK: The Wonderful Crook also seems to be about political change.

CG: It’s about the disease of someone who can’t find the answer to his problems because he’s the victim of his way of life like the others, this sort of family life with the father as the leader, and he does everything, and the son is not prepared to face the problems. It’s also a question of living, not only the political structure of society but more the structure of the family. I always mix the sociological, the problems of society and the personal problems of people. Because, in The Lacemaker, for instance, it’s not only a sociological problem of culture, it’s also an individual problem of being naturally silent. I always link both.

JMK: The Wonderful Crook was from a real case. How did you hear about it? [When his father suffers a stroke, a young family man turns small-time holdup artist to get funds to keep the small family business, a furniture factory, going. He becomes romantically involved with a female postal clerk who is one of his earliest victims, and is soon living a double life personally and professionally. The police finally come to arrest him while he is acting in a community pageant of William Tell.]

CG: It was five lines in the newspaper, but I transposed it completely with other things I had in mind. It’s sort of my life in it—not my life in robberies, but a sort of sad fantasy. It’s a curious thing because I wanted to do something funny and I realized something sad—a feeling of death, the father dying and the impossibility of living.

JMK: I wanted to ask Isabelle Huppert: how did Mr. Goretta direct you?

Isabelle Huppert: I must say that working with him was exactly the way I wanted it to be. He never directs you in an obvious way. He only wants to create a good atmosphere on the set, good relationships between the crew, the actors. I don’t like the word direction. The work is more a collaboration between the director and the actor, and with Claude Goretta I never felt a weight on me. I think we had quite the same view of the character. He let me do what I wanted, apparently. He was very meticulous about every detail, but I never felt it as a constraint. I felt totally free: I really felt as though I had created something inside his view and inside the limits he wanted to put on the film. And also I think he likes to be surprised by the actors, to a certain extent. So he sets up all the conditions in the best possible way and then he lets it go.

CG: What she said about directing is completely true because I used the same approach when I was working on a documentary film with people who were not actors; the way of making them relax in front of the camera, all of this work, is the same with the actor. It’s how to approach the others to get their confidence and that’s very important. What they don’t know is that we understand certain parts of them that they maybe don’t always want to show, and the problem is to ask them to express that.

IH: What I liked about Goretta’s way of directing is that he really gives you the feeling that the acting is your own creation, your own job, even if he’s behind it. But his point is not to show that he’s behind you. It’s a matter of atmosphere, it’s something magic and the magic is created by the director.

CG: And directing doesn’t start on the floor.

IH: It starts in life, in the understanding of the story. He put much of himself in the film and I put a lot of myself in.

CG: And writing the dialogue we had to think about voices, her rhythm and everything, so I don’t think she was very surprised by the dialogue.

IH: No, I didn’t have to change a word. Something else I wanted to say is that I don’t make any distinction between men and women directors. I think it’s a bad thing to say is there a women’s direction, is there a women’s film or men’s film? It’s all cinema. When you are a director you have to work with your feminine qualities or with your masculine qualities. When I work with a male director, maybe he emphasizes more his feminine qualities, and when I work with a woman director maybe she emphasizes her masculine qualities more. But it’s all the same.

JMK: How do you see the character of Béatrice in The Lacemaker?

Yves Beneyton and Isabelle Huppert
Yves Beneyton and Isabelle Huppert

IH: I think it’s important to know that it isn’t only a sociological problem and it’s not only the problem of the culture. It’s also a psychological problem, and not only because she can’t speak because of her culture. I think to a certain extent she doesn’t want to speak. There is even a humorous dimension in the character as long as she’s a witness. At the end of the film, the boy discovers she’s not what he had believed she was. She’s much more intelligent, more witty, more perspicacious and she observes very well every little thing in life. She’s so aware and so sensitive. Apparently she’s passive, but she’s not a passive character really. She has a very strong interior life. To a certain extent, she’s determined to be silent, and in the second part of the film her silence becomes a symbol of her grief. She expresses her grief with silence-that’s what makes her so strong and moving. For me, the way she doesn’t express anything about her grief is the greatest way of expressing her grief. She does not complain. She is proud. She is a witness and also she is a wise person. Sometimes people talk so much about everything and where is the truth in all of it? Nowhere. Nobody knows what the truth is, and she knows this. To a certain extent, this is that she thinks.

JMK: I read that you like Pascal Laine [the author of the original novel and coauthor, with Goretta, of the screenplay] because the no-man’s-land of mental imbalance fascinates you.

IH: What I especially like is the way insanity hides itself behind everyday routine. Apparently she’s unruffled and nothing happens in her expression, and inside the illness is growing. What fascinates me, because I think it’s everybody’s story to have some craziness in them, is the interior life of people. In the beginning this character is seemingly a very ordinary character in everyday life, a small assistant in a beauty parlor; nothing tragic in her. And suddenly you realize she feels within herself a passion like what a tragic heroine would feel, something really huge in herself, and you couldn’t see it. It was not apparent. So what I like is this insanity behind everyday routine.

JMK: Do you feel you’ve been influenced by other directors?

CG: Yes, Robert Altman, by his way of showing people, with small things.

IH: When I saw 3 Women I found some resemblances between 3 Women and The Lacemaker, between the two characters of Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek and between the lacemaker and her girlfriend. To a certain extent, a slight resemblance in the approach to these characters.

CG: Altman uses gestures as well as dialogue to express what he wants.

IH: The relationship between the two [Spacek and Duvall], as long as you can compare Shelley Duvall with the character played by Florence Giorgetti, not Sissy Spacek with Beneyton, of course, but what I mean is the relationship between a girl exteriorizing herself very much and a girl having no experience of life and apparently being shyer. It’s not so much in the characters themselves as in the way Altman and Goretta film these characters that I found some resemblances. It’s more in Altman’s background and Goretta’s background.

JMK: What do you think of American films?

IH: I like them. There are certain films I don’t like, like Star Wars or something like that. I think the function of film is to witness your civilization, and as long as American films fulfill that contract, I like them. I go back to Altman because I think he’s such a keen observer of America today. You can learn so much about America from his films. That’s what I look for in every film, whatever nationality. I think the more typical, the more regional films are, the more universal they are. I think The Lacemaker is European in sensibility, so you can learn much about Europe from a film like this. I like the opportunity to discover things and to discover the mentality.

JMK: Why did the Swiss cinema take so long to emerge? There must have been a Swiss cinema before you, Alain Tanner and Michel Soutter appeared, but that isn’t clear.

CG: There was no structure. It couldn’t start before television. We made our first films with TV engineers and technicians because there was nothing before that. I’m speaking of the French part of Switzerland, but in the German part they had directors like [Leopold] Lindtberg and people coming from Germany. But we learned our profession in TV.

JMK: Can you talk about how you got started?

CG: I started in England as a law student and, as I was much more interested in cinema than in law, I wanted to prepare a report on the influence of film on juvenile delinquency. So I went to London to study in the library of the British Film Institute, and Alain Tanner was there, too. There we met young students who were trying to make a different kind of English cinema—Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz. And we had the opportunity to make a short film—Nice Time, sort of a sociological poem about Piccadilly Circus, the entertainment, the buskers who come along, the prostitutes, the good and bad films, the sort of phenomenon that Piccadilly Circus represents. And after that I didn’t want to continue my law studies, I went back to Switzerland to work in TV, hoping for an opportunity to make films. So we founded a production group, Le Group des Cinq, with my friends Tanner, Soutter, Jean-Louis Roy and Jean-Jacques Lagrange, and we made our first films in the framework of this group. The Invitation was my first theatrical film; the others were made for TV.

JMK: Can you tell me something about your television projects?

CG: I worked ten years for the information department, making portraits of ordinary people, many of them women. I met several “lacemakers,” women who could not express their problems. That’s why the theme of The Lacemaker is not completely new to me.

JMK: What will be your next film?

IH: Mine will be called Violette Nozière, directed by Claude Chabrol. She’s the heroine; it’s a real story that happened in 1933, about a girl who poisoned her father and tried to poison her mother, and there was a big, famous trial and everybody was talking about it. She became sort of a heroine of the Surrealist movement because her gesture has been interpreted as a gesture of liberation, of revolt against the family, against the father, etc.

CG: Mine will be a film about the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher, for TV.

© 1978 Judith M. Kass

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.