Pauline at the Beach (1983)


Directed by Eric Rohmer

The film opens and closes with a shot of the same gate.  We see teenage Pauline and her 20 something cousin, Marion, going through the gate, and then at the they come back out.  It’s a very simple framing device, but I always like those kinds of bookends.  They’re very neat.

Inside of that neatness, though, is a group of grating, needy and preachy characters.  Pauline is at the center of the sexual storm of hurt feelings, empty dreams of love and nudity.  The film begins with a quote that translates into English as “He who talks too much, deserves himself.”  So Eric Rohmer is letting us know that we’re about to enter a world of ego.

In the very first scene after the gate, Pauline and Marion discuss their philosophies of love.  Well, Marion mostly talks about her perspectives, and Pauline listens, only responding when asked a question.  The basic point is that Marion, a divorcee, is eager to find true love, something that burns deep.  She prods Pauline, asking her if she’s ever been in love.  Pauline says she has not, and Marion keeps pushing, insisting that surely Pauline has once been in love.  In this scene it really feels like Marion is trying to reconfigure Pauline in her image.  She wants to give her some safe advice, but really Marion is just working through her own insecurities.

At the beach later on, the two of them run into a young man named Pierre.  He and Marion embrace in a very flirty manner, but they are interrupted by Henri, a slightly older man who is very transparent in his lust for Marion.  That night the two men, along with Pauline and Marion, sit around and discuss their philosophies in love.  What I like about French films (based on the ones I’ve seen) is that characters love to talk and explain what drives them.  In many other films, you learn about the characters by how they act and what they don’t say when they’re speaking.  Here, everyone just lays it all out on the table.  We learn that Marion wants to feel passion, Henri is okay having no strings attached affairs and Pierre disagrees with Henri and would rather feel something like what Marion is waiting for, but he’s okay waiting.

When Pauline is asked on her perspectives, she seems disinterested with love, confident that she’ll learn what she needs to learn in time.

So, Pierre tells Marion he loves her, and she rebuffs him.  That night she goes home with Henri.  Pauline discovers them in bed, but again, she doesn’t seem to care all that much.  Pauline then meets a young boy at the beach, named Sylvain.  Henri encourages Sylvain and Pauline to get together, orchestrating a scenario that leaves them alone at his house to do what they may.

Pierre hates Henri, and he sees a nude woman in Henri’s room while spying on them.  That same day, Marion returns to Henri early from a brief day trip, and Sylvain, also hanging out with Henri, informs him that she’s coming, meaning he has to hide the other nude woman.  In the ensuing confusion, Henri implies that it’s Sylvain who slept with the nude woman, not him.  This relieves Marion to some degree, believing Henri to not be having an affair, but it angers her too.  She tells Pauline to stay away from Sylvain.

Pierre spills the beans about Sylvain to Pauline, and she gets upset.  Then Pierre learns that Henri’s highly improbable story really is untrue.

Okay, look, this is all bullshit, all the stuff they get involved in.  It’s like a perverted Woody Allen story but somehow more self-indulgent.  All you really need to know is that the film ends with Henri leaving the small vacation town for a few weeks for work.  Pauline and Marion head back out through the gate, leaving town as well.  Marion asks Pauline if she’s upset about Sylvain, and she says she’s not.  She gets over it pretty quickly.  Then Marion tells her young cousin that they should choose to believe contrasting versions of the story involving Henri, Sylvain and the other woman.  That way, they’ll both be happy.  Pauline nods in agreement, and the story ends.

I really liked this movie, but man I hated almost every character.  The only somewhat sane person is Pauline, but the more I think about it, the more I think she’s just been remade in Marion’s twisted image by the end of the film.  In other words, there is all this crazy going on, and Pauline is simply weathering the storm.  It’s a bunch of adults not acting like adults.  They defend their perspective of love like it justifies their shitty behavior, possessiveness, recklessness and rudeness.  It’s a mix of excessive human contact and intimacy that somehow makes it feel like all the characters are further apart at the end of the story than they were at the beginning.

The film, of course, has Pauline’s name in the title, implying that she is the main character.  But the story mostly follows Marion, however Marion drops out of the story almost completely in the third act, as she has to return briefly to Paris.  It feels like the first portion of the story is Marion trying to train Pauline to be a certain way.  Marion criticizes Pauline for choosing the first boy to come along, Sylvain, but Marion has done the same exact thing with Henri.  They act almost the same way, or at least Pauline simply follows Marion’s lead.

So when Marion leaves town, it’s up to Pauline to decide for herself what she wants.  She is bold and direct towards each of the three men of the story.  She tells Pierre that he can’t simply wait for Marion to love him.  If he’s content to wait, then he’ll just be left there forever.  She tells him he’s not aggressive enough.  Then she rips into Sylvain for helping facilitate Henri’s affair, and she ultimately rejects Henri who makes a pass at her.  Henri apologizes, explaining that he’s a guy, she’s a woman, and she has beautiful legs.  Pauline ain’t having none of it, and she tells him that he’s not as direct as he thinks, none of the adults are.

So it feels like Pauline is removing the chains and giving a giant middle finger to the childish adults around her.  Then Marion returns to take her home and makes that statement about believing what you want to believe rather than seeking the truth.  At first I thought Pauline was simply agreeing with her cousin because it’s easier than starting an argument.  After all, she does like her cousin and seems protective of her throughout the film.

The more I thought about it, though, I think Pauline is regressing in Marion’s presence.  Pauline, in forgiving Sylvain, isn’t choosing to be happy, just realistic.  She makes peace with the way people are.  In the end, Marion tells her you can choose happiness (which always seems ideal), even if it may not be true.  Pauline seems to realize that yeah, she can be happy, so she agrees with her cousin.  Pauline was a kind youth when the story begins, but by the end she’s on her way to becoming the self-indulgent adult like the others, who see what they want to see.  This outlook makes it seem like everything conforms to your existing world view.  What made this ending more disappointing for Pauline really was just that she didn’t need to believe a lie to be okay.  She was okay with the way things went, having learned from all the craziness of the recent days.  Marion, on the other hand, desperately needs to believe her version of the story.  She’s in denial, and she’s so far down the path of her own way of thinking that there’s no going back.  She really, really needs to believe what she wants to believe.  So she makes Pauline believe what she wants too.  It’s like an alcoholic who needs a few drinks pressuring a teenager into having a few drinks, insisting that it’ll help the girl.  YOU’RE NOT HELPING, MARION.

None of the other adults grow or develop in the film.  They’re all the same because they have their perspective on love and life, and they stick to it.  As evidenced by the lack of work in the film, these characters are all pretty affluent.  They have time to get lost in romance and the stories they tell themselves.  In other words, they’re separated from the real world.  In Pauline’s case, she’s a kid, so this is like camp.  But for the adults, what the fuck are they doing?  Sure, they’re on vacation, so this really is a kind of break from reality, but I have the feeling that their lives are always like that in some regard.

God, I hated almost every one of these characters.  The nice character is the candy woman who sleeps with Henri and tells off Pierre, saying she doesn’t want to be used.

The film is a science experiment, sort of.  You have these four characters who debate their philosophies of love in a hypothetical sense.  Then, as if to try and prove their own ways of thinking and disprove the others’ ways of thinking, they go get hyper involved with each other.  Then they pull apart and say “See? I was right.”  But they all say that at the same time so none of them hear the others, just themselves.  They leave town confident that they were right all along.  It’s disgusting, but the film is good, occasionally funny and an interesting if frustrating portrait of denial.

*I just looked for a photo to put at the top of this post, and what I love about the photo is the simplicity of the three adults looking in at each other and Pauline staring away, indifferent.


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