Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Comedies and Proverbs: Pauline at the Beach (1983)

Amanda Langlet as Pauline and Arielle Dombasie as Marion

Pauline at the Beach is, by a wide margin, the sexiest film in either of Éric Rohmer's two major series.  Although there is a sexual subtext to all twelve films, as his protagonists struggle in words and thoughts to manage their love lives, the intellectualism of his characters (and Rohmer's own approach to filmmaking) gives an almost asexual appearance to their romantic shenanigans.   Sure, there were momentary blasts of eroticism throughout the moral tales: the fetishistic appeal of Claire's Knee, the tremendous temptation in My Night at Maud's, and the earthy sexuality of Chloe in Love in the Afternoon.  But each of the men in those films saw his lust as the enemy of his happiness.  Here on the beach, however, the five leads all embrace their libido and are simply looking for the best way to keep their hearts safe while satisfying their desires.

Pauline (Amanda Langlet) and her cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasie, also of A Good Marriage) are staying in a beachside villa on vacation.  While there they they meet three men:  Pierre (Pascal Greggory) a wind-surfing instructor who has history with Marion, Henri (Féodor Atkine, also of A Good Marriage) an older acquaintance of Pierre's, and Sylvain (Simon de la Brosse) a young man of Pauline's age.

In a scene that could only happen in a Rohmer film, but is no less satisfying for it's artificiality, the evening after the girls meet Pierre and Henri, the four dine together and spend the evening discussing their philosophical views on love.  For Marion, love must "burn."  She's seeking an all-consuming passion that is worlds apart from the previous flings she's had.  Henri couldn't agree more, but then he seems likely to agree to anything Marion says if he thinks it will get her out of her clothes.  Pierre disagrees.  Of course he does.  Over the course of the movie Pierre seems possessed of the notion that if he's disagreeable enough, and harangues Marion sufficiently she'll choose him over Henri, if only to shut him up.

Marion "burns" for Féodor Atkine as Henri
The spotlight in this scene, however, is on Pauline.  Still an adolescent, she is apart from the other three.  She moves around the room, settling in first one place then another.  She listens, but not intently.  Already Rohmer and Langlet are suggesting the girl's skepticism of the wisdom of age -- at least where love is concerned.  When pressed to join the conversation she disagrees with all of them: she doesn't believe in the burning passion of love at first sight nor does she believe in unrequited love.  For Pauline, love evolves from friendship; if she ever fell in love with someone it would be someone she'd known and cared for over considerable time.  A hint here of uncertainty in her own sexual identity as Marion points out that Pauline always avoids pronouns when speaking of love, saying someone rather than 'a boy' or 'a man.'

Eventually tensions erupt between the various leads.  Pauline explores her budding sexuality with Sylvain, a young man she meets on the beach, much to the chagrin of Marion.  And when Pierre thinks he has compromising information on Henri that can be used to drive a wedge between him and Marion he learns that, as the film's opening proverb reminds us, "a wagging tongue bites itself."

Sylvain (Simon de la Brosse) and Pauline

Pauline at the Beach is a near-perfect film.  Sexy, funny, and wise to the heart's power to deceive itself, it is easily Rohmer's most accessible.  He was in his 60's when he began the comedies and proverbs, yet this film is as youthful and vital as any in his career.  It is little wonder, on the basis of Pauline, that he was beginning to earn the reputation as France's greatest living director.

A note about the DVD.  The region-free DVD from Arrow Video in the UK is vastly superior to the American release due to indispensable special features.  In an interview segment, Rohmer discusses the casting process on this film and how he worked with actors, using home movie footage he recorded of Amanda Langlet improvising scenes with her co-stars to illustrate the discussion.  An absolute must-see for Rohmer fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment