Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Michel Deville's La Lectrice is a pretty unusual production. A good portion of its screen time is devoted to people reading out loud from books and the film could almost be seen as being a promo-piece for the literary works that it features: having the beautiful and effortlessly sensual Miou-Miou (Tango) deliver passionate readings from a number of diverse texts is surely as good an advertisement for reading as we are ever likely to get from a filmmaker. The film's generic character is just as diverse as the various books and authors that it features. Is it a European farce, an Art House oddity, a Gallic feel-good fantasy, a film about relationships or an unusual exercise in erotica? Suffice to say that I'm forced to fall back on the old cliché that declares, "it's all of the above and more."
Constance (Miou-Miou) agrees to read a book out loud for her tired boyfriend Jean (Christian Ruche) and her mind's eye soon begins to bring the book's story to life: Marie (Miou-Miou, again) enjoys reading out loud and so she decides to offer a home reading service via her local newspaper's small ads section. Responses to the ad subsequently bring her into contact with a number of unusual and quite eccentric clients who all have an element of unhappiness, frustration or need about them. Marie's caring nature soon comes to the fore and she tries her best to bring some degree of happiness and fulfilment into her clients' lives.
Marie is repeatedly presented briskly walking around an endless run of deserted back streets as she hurriedly makes her way to her next reading session. Her classy but shrift shop chic-styled outfits make her look like the missing link between Mary Poppins and Amelie. She doesn't possess Poppins's magical abilities but Marie's powers of intuition and her ability to really empathize with her clients during their intimate reading sessions do make her a special person. Her strong sense of agency, and her Amelie-like desire to effect helpful and good-natured acts in a largely harsh and unforgiving world, results in Marie becoming one of those remarkable individuals who are capable of making a real difference to the lives of others.
Her four main clients are a fairly diverse bunch. Eric (Regis Royer) is a house-bound teenage boy who is struggling to recover from a serious accident. Countess Pasmany (Maria Casares) is an elderly widow who has fallen out with both her family and her disturbed maid, Bella (Marianne Denicourt). Coralie (Charlotte Farran) is a young girl whose busy mother (Clotilde de Bayser) cannot read or find time to play with her child. Coralie owns a white rabbit and she winds up having Alice in Wonderland read to her. The motley group is completed by a company director (Patrick Chesnais) who is both overly consumed and overly stressed by his work. He's simply too busy or too wired to read anything for himself. Each client ultimately seeks to use Marie's readings as a device that will bring an element of happy fantasy into their lives. Marie claims that although she reads a lot she does not possess an imagination of her own but when she meets and speaks to the mother of one of Eric's friends, Marie is momentarily lost within her own quite vivid fantasy world.
The contents of some of the readings that Marie delivers seem to bear an uncanny relevance to the lives of her clients and the sequences that feature these personally pertinent readings possess a real air of poignancy. By contrast, Marie's expressive reading skills sometimes land her and her clients in some slightly farcical situations. When Marie reads a mildly erotic piece by Maupassant to Eric, he finds himself focusing on her stocking tops and her partially exposed thighs: he works himself into such a lather that a trip to the hospital is needed. Here Marie is chastised by a mean-spirited doctor (Simon Eine) who subsequently keeps popping up in unexpected places. Eric soon gets himself into trouble with his mother when he starts reciting pieces by Baudelaire for Marie. Farcical elements are also found in the sequences that feature the strangely constructed replies that Marie offers whenever her actions or thoughts are questioned by others: her purposefully confused and ambiguous choices of words and diction simply prompt a circle of further questions that never do seem to elicit proper answers. Some of Marie's encounters with Countess Pasmany's deranged maid, who believes that her body is infested with spiders, are a little on the farcical side too.
When Marie reads pieces by Marx, Lenin, Tolstoy, et al to Countess Pasmany, the old woman's revolutionary fervour is rekindled and she excitedly gets Marie to help her mark the anniversary of Lenin's death in a very public manner. The pair then make a splash as part of a public demonstration that is protesting about the closure of the local hairdresser's salon: the closure was prompted, according to a postcard sent by the Countess's AWOL maid, when the hairdresser accidentally cut the maid's scalp and observed three spiders escaping from the wound. These two events, and a spontaneous trip to a fun fair with Coralie that results in a misinterpretation of events by the girl's mother, bring Marie to the attention of a grouchy police inspector (Jean-Luc Boutte). He believes that reading books leads to trouble and he is openly suspicious of anybody who possesses a 'butter wouldn't melt' appearance. Just like the doctor, he too somehow starts popping into Marie's life at unexpected moments.
Marie's relationship with the stressed businessman prompts some particularly well executed set-pieces. A piece by Marguerite Duras gets him amorous and over-eager at their first reading session and Marie is forced to rebuff him. But when she subsequently learns more about his personal circumstances and gets to know him better, she decides to sleep with him. The resulting bedroom scene begins with some genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud moments and ends in a rather erotic manner. Marie eventually takes the lead here, adopting a dominant love-making position which - in keeping with her mission to teach this fellow something about literature - allows her to simultaneously deliver her reading. Marie is a beautiful, intelligent and incredibly sensual woman and her approach to her reading session here is a fantasy come true for the businessman. But Marie is not a simple or passive fantasy figure who exists purely to bring pleasure to any man who happens to employ her reading services: when a retired judge (Pierre Dux) requests that Marie reads an explicit piece by de Sade she is disturbed and upset by its content. But she manages to remain professional and she successfully hides her inner sense of disquiet. (Spoiler begins....) Alas, when the judge invites two questionable characters to share his proposed second reading of de Sade, Marie lets go of her professional ethics and refuses to proceed. It's the end of her career as a home reader and the end of the book that Constance is reading to Jean (....spoiler ends).
There are three specific layers of apparent existence in this film: Constance's 'real' world gives way to Marie's 'book-based' world, which in turn gives way to the content of the imaginary worlds and flights of fancy that the 'book-based' world's characters conjure up during their reading sessions or daydreams. Sometimes it's hard to determine which world we are actually in and a giddy sense of disorientation sets in on a couple of occasions. Before visiting the Countess, Marie asks her old tutor (Christian Blanc) for some reading suggestions. He reads her a passage by Zola and its content seems to match what we subsequently observe and take to be Marie's actual first encounter with the Countess. It's one of a number of points in the film where Marie's 'book-based' reality somehow appears to be a mirror of the contents of the written texts that she is continually exposed to.
At times the wordy nature of this show makes it feel like a filmed play and Michel Deville appears to have purposefully set out to exploit and exaggerate this apparently theatrical ambience in some sequences. A number of the show's smaller sets are decorated in noticeably simple but stylish colour schemes while being dressed in particularly utilitarian and sparse ways: they really do look like they could double-up as theatrical stage sets when viewed from certain angles. The play-like feel of the intimate set-pieces that unfold on these smaller sets is emphasised by the peculiarly static approach that Deville employs when positioning his characters within the show's general mise-en-scène: characters tend to remain seated or are found making use of a stationary piece of household equipment. Any sense of movement in these sequences is largely created by Deville and cinematographer Dominique Le Rigoleur's playful yet knowing camera moves. The film's introductory sequence features a very long tracking shot that starts at the far end of a bedroom and ends with a close-up of the cover of the book (La Lectrice by Raymond Jean) that Marie's boyfriend is reading in bed. When a long one-shot take is used to cover a conversation between Marie and her friend Francoise (Sylvie Laporte), a series of giddy snap-zooms and super-fast pans are timed to coincide with Francoise saying certain words with a certain emphasis. And a scene shared by Marie and the Countess is livened up by the camera taking on the point of view of the Countess's pet cat.
In parts of the film Deville balances his use of long single takes and static set-pieces with sequences that feature more activity, vibrancy and urgency: he employs jump cuts and other quick-cutting techniques during these sequences. When Francoise reads a short story to Marie, she expresses a desire to abridge the tale's ending and Deville and Le Rigoleur acknowledge this by presenting her story's denouement as a series of speedily edited still shots. Most of the film's larger interior sets are just as sparsely dressed and just as potentially theatre stage-like as the smaller ones. These sets tend to feature precision-placed furniture and trimmings that bring a noticeably impressive sense of balance to Deville and Le Rigoleur's perfectly composed master shots. Most of these larger sets are modernist-styled French apartment rooms that are generally laid out in noticeably symmetrical ways. Slightly more mobile cameras take advantage of the spacious nature of these sets to weave in and out of the characters' conversations. In spite of the variety of shooting styles and editing techniques employed here, the film remains quite evenly paced and the use of a number of jaunty musical pieces by Beethoven on the soundtrack serves to add to the film's often slightly whimsical vibe.
Picture quality here is just short of excellent: interior and exterior shots play equally well and the film's noticeably stylized colours and art direction are rendered in near perfect quality. There is a touch of print damage present in the form of odd speckles but these do not pose a problem. The sound quality here is just short of excellent too: dialogue is clear and warm and the Beethoven selections come across just fine. The DVD features the film's original French soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La Lectrice rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: Image gallery and biographies for Miou-Miou, Michel Deville & Patrick Chesnais
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 28, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson