Pauline & Paulette (2001)


PAULINE & PAULETTE (Pauline en Paulette)

(director/writer: Lieven Debrauwer; screenwriter: Jaak Boon; cinematographer: Michel van Laer; editor: Philippe Ravoet; music: Frédéric Devreese; cast: Dora van der Groen (Pauline), Ann Petersen (Paulette), Julienne De Bruyn (Martha), Rosemarie Bergmans (Cecile), Idwig Stephane (Albert), Nand Buyl (Notary), Camilia Blereau (The Butcher’s Wife); Runtime: 78; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Dominique Janne; Sony Pictures Classics; 2000-Belgium)

“A small gem from Belgium.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A small gem from Belgium. It’s a touching domestic family drama set in the sleepy small town Belgian countryside, where Flemish is the language of choice for the heroine (she doesn’t speak or understand French). Pauline and Paulette is the kind of honest story about a mentally challenged person that Hollywood never seems to get right. This modest film, one without grandiose aims, hasn’t one false note. All first-time director and co-writer Lieven Debrauwer does is tell the simple universal story about Pauline and her relationship with her three elderly sisters without unneeded embellishments. She is a sweet-natured but stubborn and childishly demanding 66-year-old woman with a severe mental handicap, who needs constant supervision. When she says “Don’t want to,” you’ve got a problem because she turns into a pest who must get her own way. The actress who plays her, is one of Belgium’s outstanding veteran actresses, Dora van der Groen. Her convincing performance is simply magnificent. Jaak Boon was the co-screenwriter, whose contributions aided in producing a rich script that avoids being either sentimental or sugary. The film cruises along at just the right speed and its length of 78 minutes is not loaded down with any superfluous moments, as it arrives at a wonderfully appropriate bittersweet conclusion. It is a subtle film that allows you to see for yourself how sometimes if you avoid your responsibilities and refuse to make a self-sacrifice and instead insist on getting your wish, that could backfire and leave you surprisingly disappointed with your choice. The film is filled with many small moments that are poignant and affirming of what’s precious in life. Also, the facial expressions from its star and the supporting players’ many reaction shots are priceless. Despite the supposedly bleak topic, it always remains uplifting and a joy to behold.

The film opens with a Tchaikovsky waltz and shots of florid colored garden flowers, especially roses. Throughout the remainder of the film there are background soundtracks from Strauss waltzes. The music and the barrage of rosettes flung upon the screen throughout provide a beguilingly frothy hook to get the viewer further into the warm-hearted feel-good story. We first meet Pauline when she’s playfully watering the garden flowers in her wealthy sister Martha’s (Julienne De Bruyn) comfortable house. Martha has patiently taken care of her with a firm but tender love ever since their mom died. She ties her shoelaces, spreads jam on her bread, and cuts her meat. Life is serene. Pauline is content to keep a scrapbook with pictures of flowers. But when Martha suddenly dies, all Pauline can say is that Martha went away in a big car. Martha stipulates in her will, which is read by the town notary to the three remaining sisters, Pauline, Paulette (Ann Petersen), and Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), that either Paulette and Cecile must care for Pauline in their home in order to split the inheritance equally three ways. If not, the estate money is forfeited and will be used instead to pay for Pauline’s care in a first-class institution.

The youngest sister Cecile is a career woman in a new relationship with her uptight French-speaking boyfriend Albert, and lives in a tiny Brussels apartment. She plans to use the money to purchase a cottage in Spain. Since she’s left her birthplace and eschewed her family responsibilities some time ago, Pauline doesn’t know her and fails to recognize that they are sisters. Meanwhile, the other sister, Paulette, lives in town and owns a gift shop, and is embarrassed by her sister and at times impatiently snaps at her when she visits the shop when customers are present. In order not to lose the money she reluctantly agrees to take care of her, even though she shows that she can’t return the same love Pauline offers her. She plans to retire soon and move to the Belgian seacoast, it’s a dream that has made her dull and orderly life seem more bearable.

Pauline obsessively adores Paulette who is grossly plump, wears heavy makeup and is heavily perfumed. She’s also obsessively attracted to the roses on the gift wrapping paper in the fabric shop and to all the porcelain figurines and flowery bedspreads in Paulette’s dainty upstairs gift shop apartment. The two seem to share the same questionable taste, which might be viewed as bad. Paulette lives and works alone and her one love in life is as a diva in the local amateur operetta company, which she has done for the last thirty years. When Pauline comes onstage while Paulette is performing and asks to have her shoelaces tied, and then she makes the audience howl with laughter by proudly stating that Paulette’s her sister — that was the last straw and Paulette drives her sister to Brussels despite the gridlock conditions.

In Brussels, Albert resents her intrusion while Cecile is sympathetic and tries her best to relate to her — but it just isn’t working. There was one ironically amusing scene in an art museum where Albert is lecturing the sisters about an art work and what it means to humanity, but he can’t open up to Pauline and manages to show what a phony and uncaring person he is despite his high opinion of himself as someone of culture. Pauline has learned about taxis from Cecile (showing that she is capable of learning some things), and takes a taxi back alone to the shocked Pauline in their nearby small town. When Paulette closes her shop and obtains her dream beachside apartment, she decides to forfeit her inheritance and places Pauline in an institution. Her own pleasure comes first, as she dreads thinking what it would be like looking after her sister for her entire life. What’s interesting to note, is that the director doesn’t fault her for that choice. This ending is not what American audiences expect to see from a Hollywood film, but this is not a Hollywood film where a contrived happy ending seems to be mandatory. The film’s realistic and does not offer a completely satisfactory outcome that favors either side. It has sympathy not only for Pauline but her sisters. Paulette’s surrender also amusingly comes after she learns at last about the advantages of Velcro and how that can solve the shoelace problem. The sisters are not pictured as ogres, but people who have their own lives to consider and tried to do what was best in an honest way. True, they are transformed by Pauline’s childlike innocence and that smacks of being just another one of those retarded genre films that use that as their cliché. But thankfully the film remains highly entertaining and didn’t resort to giving any artificial messages or an ending where the sisters suddenly change their personalities and become saintly. Instead, they do learn something from Pauline and it is heartfelt and makes a lot of sense. The high quality of the film remains in the interplay between the sisters and the superior acting, rather than in the plotline.

Though it is certainly not a momentous film, yet it is one that is unforgettable. There was not one tawdry or cheap moment in this well-crafted drama where the filmmaker was exploiting his subjects in its search into human nature. On top of that, Dora van der Groen gives one of the truly masterful cinematic performances, while the supporting players Ann Petersen and Rosemarie Bergmans beautifully play their roles in an understated manner. Ann Petersen is a delight to behold, as she has the ability to telegraph her inner feelings mainly through her expressions and acts as a measured counterbalance to Ms. Van der Groen. These two won Belgian Plateau Awards for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, plus it won for Best Film and Best Director. The film also won the audience prize at the 2001 Cannes Festival, plus the Ecumenical Jury’s Special Prize.