November 16th 2009
Pauline and Paulette
The film shown at the Lexi at the October U3A film group meeting was Pauline and Paulette (2001). The session was well attended.
Although the film is simple and gentle it provoked in the audience a host of thoughts and comments about mental disability, the difficulties and rewards of caring, ageing, retirement, guilt, the state of social provision for the mentally disabled,
This unusual film with four main female characters over 60 years of age has a very slight narrative. Pauline is a 66 years woman with a developmental disability and a mental age of 6. Martha, the eldest of her three sisters, her carer, dies and leaves her inheritance to share between the three sisters, on the condition that one of the two sisters Paulette or Cecile looks after Pauline. Pauline lives with Paulette for a while but the disruptions to Paulette’s life are too great and Pauline is sent to Brussels to live with Cecile. She soon escapes back to Paulette who in the meantime has decided to forego the inheritance, put Pauline in a care home and retire to the seaside.
Dora van der Groen who plays Pauline is entirely realistic and details of her behaviour are accurately observed and executed. Her way of walking, eating, drinking are so convincing that somebody in the audience asked if she was disabled. Close ups show every line and fold lines on her face and neck without make up. Pauline has one passion: flowers and a fascination for her sister Paulette.
It is through this fascination that we are made to understand Pauline and her touching childlike character.
Everything in Martha’s house is brown, Pauline’s room, the sheets on her bed, the carpet, the wall paper, the kitchen, the clothes they wear. Cecile’s minimalist white and blue town small flat and conventional clothes conveys dullness, lack of freedom.
Paulette, on the other hand is all show. Physically she is big, heavily made up and bejewelled. Her bedroom is all pink with a profusion of knick knacks, and fabric roses and frills on the bedspread. She sings in the amateur operetta group of the town and is still more flamboyant on stage. Her Ladies’ Wear shop is red, fuchsia, pink both in the décor and the clothes she sells. The wrapping paper printed with red roses enchants Pauline and is one of the motifs of the film. It is used on the cover of the DVD .
At the beginning of the film, we see alternating shots of Pauline peering through the shop window and close ups of the objects in the shop in all their colourful variety of reds and pinks. The delight and immense pleasure expressed by Pauline’s face make us see this kitsch shop with her childlike eyes.
There is little narrative drive in the film or dramatic changes, but isolated small details of the behaviour of the three sisters and the few other characters give the viewer space to think and negotiate between the two worlds of Pauline and the others. The subtle changes that occur in the three sisters and their relationship show with nuances, the development of affection, tenderness, tolerance rarely seen in family dramas.
It is an unusual film in that although three of the main protagonists are over 60. Experiences of age like retirement and death are present as normal events in life but the main theme is not ageing but relationships.
It is not a feel-good film about mental disability, it is a film that gives the viewer the opportunity to think about it.
This was reflected in the profusion of comments from the audience. It was also gratifying to talk to a person involved in ‘Brent Carers’ who thought that the film would be enjoyed by the members of the association.