Pauline at the Beach (1983)
Director: Éric Rohmer
Writer: Éric Rohmer
Cinematographer: Néstor Almendros
Producer: Margaret Ménégoz
by Jon Cvack
It was after seeing Love in the Afternoon (1972) about a year ago along with Suzanne's Career (1963) a year or so before that, that I was fairly certain that this film too would be misogynistic. It was exciting to see a New Wave filmmaker continue to produce interesting work into the 80s; coming up with black and white, taking on that unique 70s style, then reaching that specific 80s universe, now containing that modern look yet with the crimped blonde hair, short shorts and suits, one piece bathing suits, and white/blue and white/red striped shirts and jackets.
Hours ago I had just seen Call Me By Your Name (2017), which provided that rare experience that only a phenomenal movie provides. It hasn’t left my mind since the credits rolled, with Timothée Chalame in close, his eyes full of tears. Prior to viewing, I didn’t know the film took place in the 80s, and yet it never calls attention to itself, as so many films are prone to do with the decade. Seeing this right after I finished Pauline at the Beach was peculiar, as the two films are strikingly similar, to where I’d assume director Luca Guadagnino had to have seen this; providing one of those rare cinematic coincidences where the stars align and provide you with a flawless blend.
The story involves the sexy and crimped Marion (Arielle Dombasle) who is taking care of her younger, 12 year old cousin Pauline (Amanda Langlet). The two head to an unspecified coastal town, with nothing to do but hang at the beach all day. Marion wears a sexy 80s one piece swimsuits that shows off her every curve, which when bumping into an ex-lover Pierre (Pascal Greggory), reignites his feelings toward her. As they talk, they’re met by a creepy looking middle-aged man Henri (Féodor Atkine) who has an ugly tattoo on his arm and whose hairline recedes far back except for a tiny island clump near the front of his scalp.
He invites the three over for dinner where they have a discussion about love, with Marion believing love at first sight, Henri not looking for anything serious, Pierre thinking love has to grow, while Pauline has no opinions (or experience at all). They later go dancing* where Pierre then admits his love for Marion, who rejects him, knowing he’s a jealous guy, suggesting that perhaps he should go for Pauline to which he immediately rejects the idea in disgust, Marion instead opts for Henri, sleeping with him later that night. I’m not sure what the statutory rape laws were in France in 1983; that is, whether this was culturally normal, or whether it was around the same age here, and therefore making Marion’s ideas all the stranger.
The next day, Pauline and Marion return to the beach where they meet a boy around Pauline’s age named Sylvain (Simon de la Brosse). Pauline and Sylvain hit it off, ending up back at Henri’s cottage where they begin to dance, with them ending up in a bed as Henri comes home, finding Pauline shirtless, all while Marion is beginning to develop serious feelings for Henri.
Pauline and Marion then head for a day trip, where Henri sleeps with a local beach snack sales girl Louisette (Rosette). Confusion arises when Pierre walks by, seeing Louisetta in Henri’s bed, all while Marion comes home while they’re having sex, leading Henri to put Louisetta in Sylvaine’s room, with Marion entering and asking who the girl is, with Henri saying he found Sylvaine and Louisetta having sex. PIerre then tries to tell Marion the truth about Henri, with Marion telling Pauline what Henri told her about Sylvaine, causing Sylvaine and Pauline to call things off, for reasons that Sylvaine doesn’t understand.
Marion then gets called in for work, having to leave town, leaving Pauline with Pierre, Sylvain, and Henri, who all try to work the situation, with Pauline still pissed at Sylvain, wondering why he went along with Henri’s ruse. Things turn weird when Pauline has to choose between being taken home by Pierre or staying at Henri’s, choosing Henri, who then tries to seduce her the next morning (again, she’s 12 and he must be in his 40s), with Pauline kicking him out. In the end, rather than accepting the lies, Pauline and Marion decide to leave their affairs behind.
While this might sound confusing, Rohmer actually maintains clarity throughout the story. In the end, he’s exploring four different perspectives of love, with two supplemental characters. Pierre’s commitment in allowing love to develop has prevented him from moving on from Marion, with only molestation offered as a possible option, deepening his humiliation; Henri’s distaste for serious commitment is what destroys all of the relationships; Marion’s love at first sight philosophy causes her to have blinders when the deceit begins; and Pauline attempts to explore all of the above, never fully immersing herself into any relationship so much as taking a taste, discovering tragedy in all options.
It’s a stranger movie to consider than how it plays, and yet also one the better Rohmer films I’ve seen, offering a complexity across all genres. He doesn’t fully escape his misogyny by fully objectifying Arielle Dombasle, but rather attempts to show us as much as possible, no matter the purpose. The Pierre/Pauline pitch was also odd, and while it definitely added a bizarre twist, I’m not sure if it was meant to be as creepy as it came across, as Pierre’s reaction is far more tame than I imagine most others. While not nearly as brilliant or endearing as Call Me By Your Name, it’s a great movie from an increasingly fascinating time period.
*It was this scene specifically that made watching Call Me By Your Name so weird, as I was admiring native 80s films’ ability to capture a moment in time; to show how kids dressed, the music they listened, and whether they ate drank or smoked. Call Me By Your Name provides a strikingly similar scene.
BELOW: The only clip I can find
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