Pauline & Paulette
review by Gianni Truzzi, 10 May 2002

To the growing list of actors convincingly playing the mentally diminished – Russell Crowe, Sean Penn and Judi Dench most recently – add 73-year-old Dora van der Groen. The fact that most filmgoers (including me) have never heard of this “national treasure” of Belgium only aids in the appreciation of her affecting portrayal of an elderly retarded woman as genuine devotion to an actor’s craft. No one is likely to accuse this obscure veteran of seventy films of Oscar-chasing.

Pauline ages within a life that is as simple as her mind. She lives with Martha, the eldest of her three sisters in a Flemish village, where her biggest daily decision is to choose jam or chocolate spread for her toast.  She is drawn irresistibly to beauty, cuts pictures of flowers for a scrapbook, and is easily distracted from her errands to the butcher by the delicate window displays of her sister Paulette’s fussy boutique.

Paulette (Ann Petersen) finds her sister’s mooning to be an irritation, disrupting her matronly orderliness and annoying her customers. Yet the two have much in common. Paulette rules over her shop and frilly apartment like a perfumed lavender poodle, and commands the village’s operetta as its grand diva. She surrounds herself with the fragile and the precious, and bristles at Pauline’s disruptive interest.

When Martha dies, her will demands that either Paulette or youngest sister Cecile (who lives in Brussels) care for Pauline to release the estate. First Paulette tries, then Cecile. It’s clear and no surprise who Pauline prefers.

As the first feature for director Lieven Debrauwer, it bursts with quality and refreshes by honestly showing the ugly distaste many display when confronted with the special needs of another. The butcher’s wife is only minimally patient with Pauline as a customer, and seldom conceals her disdain. Cecile’s French boyfriend, while otherwise charming,  feels no compunction about displaying his resentment of Pauline’s intrusion into their carefully constructed routine. Pauline’s neediness is unrelenting, unable to tie her own shoes, spread her own jam or remember her instructions reliably. As offenses, they are mild, yet we sympathize with Paulette’s desire to get on with her own dwindling days.

In this touching story of two sisters learning to accommodate each other late in life, Debrauwer consistently conveys the essence of being firmly settled. One senses a larger metaphor looming, one for Belgium itself, smug in its European elegance and comfort. The festival of flowers that Cecile and Pauline enjoy in the Brussels square is a model of Flemish orderliness: beautiful, methodical and remote. The film’s nagging limit is that it never acknowledges such a theme, preferring its own feel-good warmth, and consequently feeling like it hasn’t got much to say.

Such confinement might, to an intellectual viewer, be as frustrating as trying to help someone like Pauline. Yet, after the award-conscious earnestness of so many Hollywood attempts, van der Groen’s unflinching and authentic performance is also a welcome relief.

Directed by:
Lieven Debrauwer

Dora van der Groen
Ann Petersen
Rosemarie Bergmans
Julienne De Bruyn
Camilia Blereau

Written by:
Jaak Boon
Lieven Debrauwer

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for
children under 13.





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