PAULINE AT THE BEACH (Pauline à la Plage)
(director/writer: Eric Rohmer; cinematographer: Nestor Almendros; editor: Cecile Decugis; cast: Amanda Langlet (Pauline), Arielle Dombsale (Marion), Pascal Greggory (Pierre), Fedoor Atkine (Henri), Simon De La Brosse (Sylvain), Rosette (Louisette, Candy Girl), Michel Ferry (Sylvain’s Friend); Runtime: 95; Films Ariane; 1983-France)
“The beauty in the film is in the natural way the slight story evolves.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
French director Eric Rohmer’s third film is a coming-of-age story, comically looking at the human condition. It is seen through the innocent eyes of the wise beyond her years 15-year-old, Pauline (Amanda Langlet), who is left by her parents to finish off the waning days of her summer vacation with her older cousin, the very attractive blonde, Marion (Arielle Dombsale). Marion is about to get a divorce is staying alone at her brother’s vacation house in Granville, a beach resort along the Brittany coast which is a train ride away from Paris.
The beauty in the film is in the natural way the slight story evolves and how tense it gets when love and desire become the main topics that are burning in these very ordinary characters’ minds. Marion tells Pauline that her marriage was a mistake because she couldn’t love her husband, that she mistook being faithful for love. That she is now waiting for love, for something to burn inside her; that love has to be natural, it can’t be forced. Marion comes on as the sophisticated and worldly person, who really understands what love is. Pauline, who is a virgin, states that she doesn’t know what love is, but to love someone you must know them.
When the girls go to the beach, which is a few miles from their house, Marion runs into a handsome man, Pierre (Pascal Greggory), whom she dated before she married. He’s her mirror image, as they could be taken for brother and sister. They haven’t seen each other for 5 years and seem glad to have met again, as he is interested in giving her lessons on windsurfing and she wants him as a friend. It seems like these two are a natural to hit it off, as Pierre is eyeballing her and is drooling over her perfect body. But an acquaintance of his, Henri (Fedoor Atkine), comes along the beach and introduces himself to them. He’s a divorced ethnologist, who has a 5-year-old daughter temporarily vacationing with him. He soon manages to invite them all over to his beachfront house for dinner, even though Pierre tries to get rid of him and stop this dinner date.
At Henri’s, they drink wine and talk in a longwinded manner about love and relationships. Henri comes on as a free spirit, living only for the moment. Pierre can only state that love for him is to be found only with someone he could trust. Rohmer is making sport of the adults and how phony they are. As Pierre is dying for Marion’s love, even if he doesn’t trust her. While Marion rejects Pierre and jumps into bed that same night with the snake-like Henri, not seeing that he doesn’t love her. The only one who talks with a straight tongue is Pauline.
The next day at the beach, the unsophisticated Pauline is spotted by a handsome boy her age, Sylvain (Brosse), who is vacationing with his parents. They get a chance to know each other when Henri invites them over to his house to listen to some records and they end up dancing together. When Pauline feels more comfortable with him and Henri leaves them alone to run some errands, they go into the bedroom and fool around in the bed. Marion stops in to see Henri and sees them together in bed, but leaves without saying anything. At home she tries to warn Pauline about boys like that who chase after girls, but Pauline says she can make up her own mind. Meanwhile, Pierre feels both women have made bad choices in men and jealously speaks against Henri to Marion.
The big event in the film is when Marion and Pauline go on a day trip sightseeing to the tourist spot at Mont St-Michel, and Henri sees this as an opportunity to go swimming with the lady who sells candy on the beach (Rosette). She’s someone he has had sexual relations with before, and is thrilled by her imperfections. Since Sylvain can’t meet Pauline on the beach he goes back with Henri and the candy seller to Henri’s. Pierre purposely passes by Henri’s house and sees the candy seller in the nude in Henri’s room, and later on Marion comes by looking for Henri and spots the naked woman. To explain the nude lady Henri tells her that she’s with Sylvain, but his lie upsets everyone and exposes how artificial he is.
The charm in the story is in how despite all the gossip and lies and perversions Pauline sees, she grows up that summer and sees through all the deceits of the adults. Rohmer does it without a strong plot, but by his ability to have the characters play out who they are in a realistic way. The rejected lover Pierre is a bore; Henri is a sly lover using fancy words to manipulate others; Marion is someone who doesn’t understand herself and is feeding herself lies about who she is and what she wants. Only Pauline comes through this vacation with a worthwhile summer romance.
The pleasure in the film is in its simplicity. The natural way it was filmed makes it a pleasant viewing experience, probably reminding the viewer of some similar experience they might have had on the beach.
REVIEWED ON 8/20/2001 GRADE: B