LA LECTRICE ("The Reader") (France, 1988) *** 1/2
Constance (Miou-Miou ) is a young woman who, while reading aloud in bed the novel "La Lectrice" by Raymond Jean, becomes herself the book's heroine, Marie.
Marie, urged to try her hand at being a professional reader, places an ad and finds herself reading to bizarre, assorted types. Since Marie is a passionate lover of books, she tailors her choices of texts to the yearnings and fantasies of her clients.
These are: a teen-age boy in a wheelchair who is aroused by passages by Baudelaire and Maupassant -- and by Constance's knee (an oblique reference to Eric Rohmer's movie "Claire's Knee"); the eccentric widow of a Hungarian general -- a countess who pretends to have low eyesight and is politically aroused by texts from Marx, Lenin, Gorki, Tolstoy and the poet Jacques Prevert; an amorous businessman who gets subjected to Marguerite Duras's "The Lover" even while he makes to love with his reader; a little girl who is consoled for being neglected by her mother by the magic of "Alice In Wonderland"; and a salacious retired judge who requires de Sade's "120 Days."
Throughout the film Marie is Constance and Constance is Marie. The Raymond Jean novel "La Lectrice" provides the foundation, but excerpts from other works (short stories by the same author), are worked in and sometimes illustrated, that is, brought to life.
From the start the movie is built on several levels: Constance, the story read, the story lived, literary criticism, and so on. It continues that way until you lose count of the levels.
"La Lectrice" is unlike any film most people have ever seen, as it creates its own genre and its own universe. It has the most delightfully complex structure of any movie I can remember this side of the works of Alain Resnais. And it is a playful, witty construct which runs the scale from humor to farce and from stylization to surrealism. It is done as a series of Pirandellian conceits, of mirror games, self-reflexive, allusive, both referential and self-referential.
This is not a movie for a wide public. It addresses itself to an intelligentsia of literati. Those who are into literary and filmic analysis will be in critical heaven. For them, "La Lectrice" is unalloyed joy, even if many of the in-jokes, in-references and puns may escape audiences without a French background, especially as the text often has multi-tiered pleasantries.
One of them is the rewriting of a fable by La Fontaine. Another mentions rain as an " Histoire d'Eau" ("Water Story") which is also the notorious sex novel "Histoire d'O" plus a fleeting visual homage to the movie "Singin' in the Rain."
I previewed this movie in the company of academics in computer science, physics, education, classics -- and a pianist. What most of them had in common was that they were Greeks. I realize that much of "La Lectrice" will be Greek to most viewers, although the funny-erotic and mock-erotic parts of the film hold no mysteries.
This brilliant picture's script was co-written by the director and his wife. The film has won several awards, including the Louis Delluc prize in France.
Adding to this work's charm is the use of musical leitmotifs where each of seven passages from Beethoven piano sonatas or chamber music is identified with a character.
Miou-Miou, who has so often played inarticulate characters, reads her pieces with a wonderful voice. She is perfect in her multi-layered persona, sober, cool, ironic yet involved with those around her. Miou-Miou heads a first-rate cast of actors mostly unknown to us and, I suspect, to the French. The exceptions are Maria Casares ("Orpheus," "Children Of Paradise") unrecognizable as the aged, widowed countess, and Pierre Dux as the judge.
Production values are superb, from the odd, larger-than-life interior sets to the repeated exteriors of the city of Arles, all exquisitely photographed in color by Dominique Le Rigoleur.
Worth noting is the number of women's names among the credits and, especially,the fact that in a world of male directors of cinematography, cinematographer Dominique Le Rigoleur (a name that can be masculine or feminine) is also a woman.