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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005

Beautiful stitches in time


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Eleonore Faucher
Running time: 88 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 3
[See Japan Times movie listings]

It's not often that the work we do also heals and empowers us, but in the case of two women in "Brodeuses (Common Thread)" (titled "Claire no Shishu" in Japan) their work becomes their salvation.

News photo
Lola Naymark and Ariane Ascaride in "Brodeuses"

As the title shows, they're embroiderers, which means they have trained their hands to do incredible things -- with each stitch, they seem to get closer to a life truth as complex and mysterious as their chosen craft. At the same time, you can't help wondering what led them to take up the profession in the first place. For all the painstaking hard work it entails and the breathtaking beauty of the finished product, the efforts of embroiderers goes largely unrewarded, and the film makes no attempt to conceal that. Clearly, for these women, embroidery has a meaning that goes beyond fame and glamour and income; through it, they are able to arm themselves to face life's difficulties and the way they communicate with and nurture each other.

At the center of this fabric is a 17-year-old girl called Claire (Lola Naymark), who works the cash register at her local supermarket in the South of France and who also happens to be five months pregnant. Her coworkers make snide remarks about her increasing middle ("Aren't you getting a little too fat?") but Claire refrains from confiding in anyone except her best friend Lucille, to whom she writes: "It's OK, I'll survive because I have my embroidery." Interestingly, she makes no mention of the father of her child -- Claire has an air of heavy, mature resignation that's quite arresting in someone so young. Silently, she goes about her daily work and secretly, she makes preparations to give her baby up for adoption. At night, in her tiny one-room apartment, Claire embroiders with fierce concentration.

One weekend, Lucille's mother introduces Claire to Madame Melikian (Ariane Ascaride), a skilled embroiderer who lives next door. Madame has just lost her only son in a motorbike accident, but the work must go on and she agrees to hire Claire temporarily, until they complete a project for a Parisian designer.

News photo
Director Eleonore Faucher

Side by side, Claire and Madame stitch tiny beads onto a cloth so delicate it appears to be made from strands plucked from clouds, and silently they move their needles up and down the vast expanse of material. Neither are very communicative, but Claire can feel how sad and pained Madame is, and, in turn, Madame guesses Claire's predicament. They don't console each other with words, and Madame retains her stiff and frosty manner, but as the days go by a quiet and enduring camaraderie develops between them. Claire, who had been so ready to give the baby up once it was born, begins to feel that perhaps she can raise her child and keep at her craft.

In this film, Eleonore Faucher's first feature, the director says she had wanted to tell the story of a profession "that stays in the shadows" and hit upon embroidery. "Sewing/embroidering and filmmaking is quite similar. People see a movie, but they don't think about the incredible amount of work that goes into making it. It's the same with haute couture fashion -- models wear beautiful clothes and walk on the runway, but no one gives a thought to the many different hands that went into making those clothes."

Faucher herself likes to sew and says it's second nature for her to mend old clothing, or stitch a pattern onto a shirt. "I grew up watching my grandmother sew things. . . . She never threw things out, she fixed them with a needle and thread. She and I weren't close, but now that I've reached adulthood and have a child of my own, I find myself doing the same things she used to do. This was fascinating for me and I guess it's part of why I decided to make this film."

Faucher also wrote the screenplay and asked Ascaride, one of France's most treasured actresses, to play the part of Madame Melikian. "Brodeuses" has won several awards, including the Critics' Week Grand Prix at Cannes, and has put her name on the map of French filmmaking -- but Faucher takes it all in stride. "I was never a film buff, and I can't even think of very many films I really love. I trained for filmmaking because it attracted me as a profession and I knew it was something I could keep doing for a long time."

Her coolness and distance is reflected in the personalities of both Madame Melikian and Claire, and she describes them as "amalgams of my own self." She asked the sunny Ascaride to mute her usual screen persona to play a woman "who was like moonlight; dark and mysteriously luminous." And then she went about looking for a young actress with Claire's reticence and maturity and chose Naymark. "It was also that hair of hers," says Faucher. "Onscreen, it has a quality like nothing else."

The contrast between Claire's thick, bouncing curls of flaming red and her alabaster skin is what defines the ambience of "Brodeuses." Because Claire's coloring has such visual impact, it's enough to just to keep looking at her, bent over her needle. Watching the two seamstresses work, the viewer might get an idea of what painters like Vermeer (who also had a penchant for capturing women doing handwork on his canvases) must have felt as he sketched his models working in their chairs -- how the light from the window created halos on their heads and highlighted their nimble fingers.

Indeed, there's an other-worldliness to "Brodeuses," enhanced by the fact that the two women do nothing much else besides embroider. "I wanted to create a timeless space," says Faucher. "I didn't want a period piece because embroidering is definitely not an art of the past, at least not yet. I suppose the story could be set anywhere between the 1960s and the present . . . but I did want to make sure no one used cell phones or worked on computers because that would ruin the sensual atmosphere."

Actually, it's hard to think of a recent film that can match the deep sensuality of "Brodeuses." For a long time, young women have been taught that acts like sewing and cooking will undermine their dignity and deprive them of charm but here, the assumption is turned on its head. It seems only natural that Claire doesn't confide in her mother (oblivious of her daughter's plight) whose hands are dormant and insensitive, and turns instead to Madame, who can decipher Claire's thoughts from the movement of her needle and the pattern on the cloth, and who herself has hands so attuned to her craft that when she works the threads and beads seem to take on a life of their own. The effect can only be described as magical.

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