A review of  Pauline and Paulette” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG for poignant adult situations.  In Flemish with English subtitles

Run Time: 1 hour, 18 minutes

 

 

The gift of this spare Belgian production is that it generates powerful emotions without the aid of unexpected twists or significant conclusions.  Human drama, pure and simple.

Celebrated Belgian actress Dora van der Groen plays Pauline, a 66-year old woman with the mind of a 5-year old who can’t read, write, or tie her own shoes.  She lives with her spinster sister Martha (Julienne De Bruyn) in a quaint Flemish town nestled between Brussels and the coastland, and derives her greatest pleasure from the flowers she waters compulsively throughout the day.  In the garden, in pictures, and even on postage stamps – flowers are Pauline’s passion.

Pauline’s world is turned upside down when Martha unexpectedly dies, leaving her in the care of two other sisters with active lives of their own. Cecile (Roseman Bergmans) lives in nearby Brussels, busy with her live-in French lover and smug in the knowledge of being safely ensconced in the city, away from the day-to-day family melodrama.  Paulette (Ann Petersen) lives in town, managing a small fabric shop that keeps her busy between operatic singing engagements.

Pauline idolizes Paulette and her sister’s ostensibly  glamorous lifestyle, and she blithely makes the awkward transition to a tiny room connected to Paulette’s shop.  But Paulette’s resentment at her loss of privacy (and her sister’s reluctant help) is a bitter pill to swallow, preventing her from properly caring for her simpleton sister.

Poignancy flows from the core of this quiet, heartfelt film.  Van der Groen’s Pauline is a bundle of contradictions – frustratingly daft, yet utterly childlike and borderline charming. Watching Pauline bounced from home to home without conscious knowledge of the emotional neglect is painful, though harsh judgment seems insensitive when considering Pauline’s relentlessly immature willfulness. 

Film plays fast and loose with evocative color schemes – a profusion of fuchsias and reds for the flamboyant Paulette, sensible browns and beiges for the uncompromising eldest Martha, and an austere white palette for uptight Cecile.  Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” is used to maximum (and loud) effect, washing over the drama with a wink and nod to backhand humor and haunting imagery.