meIn the late New Wave director Éric Rohmer’s films, summer vacation is a place for unfulfilled desires, moral crises, and inertia. His young and confused creations live in the languid space where personal ethics creep in and loneliness and apathy are magnified under the blazing sun.
With endless leisure time in front of them, they stare into space or become entangled in strained romantic relationships, as in the case of their charming but bittersweet 1983 film. Pauline on the beach (Pauline à la Plage, the third addition to Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs sextet), currently airing on Stan.
It is the end of summer and Pauline (Amanda Langlet), 15, has come to a resort town in Normandy to spend the holidays with her cousin Marion, a fashion designer (Arielle Dombasle, who, with her bulging coral necklace, Lush hand gestures and fuzzy, blonde, is almost, but not quite, a caricature of a French fashion person). On the beach, they meet Marion’s former ex, the practical and sharp-jawed Pierre (Pascal Greggory), who in turn meets an acquaintance, Henri (Féodor Atkine), a peripatetic (and lewd) ethnographer.
Together they meet at Henri’s house for dinner and chat about love and romance, the kind of serious conversation that can only come out of hasty intimacy. Some lines of research: is love all heat and flash, or can it swell slowly? Does love arise from a chance encounter with a complete stranger, or just someone you know? Is blind faith better than pragmatism? Marion, recently separated from her husband, wants to “burn” with love. “I need ecstatic delight!” she cries later in the movie. Pierre is looking for a reliable partner. Herni wants to remain unleashed, guided only by his wishes. Pauline, a mostly silent intruder in these revelations, seeks a romance that extends beyond a glance with a 17-year-old at a restaurant the previous summer.
“A tongue that wags bites itself”, a loose translation of a quote from the 12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes, is the proverb that precedes Pauline on the beach, where misunderstandings, deception and self-deception lead to absurd ends. Everyone is accused of being in love or infatuated with the wrong person, and each one throws chosen words about the flirtations of others, which eventually involve the ruddy-cheeked candy salesman and Pauline’s love interest, a teenager named Sylvain. It is a cutting but kind film about how age does not need enlightenment, where the lies of adults collide with the end of the innocence of childhood.
Outside of these amorous antics, Pauline at the Beach hums with the languor of summer, interrupted by swims, alfresco breakfasts and the infrequent windsurfing lesson. Rohmer, a devout Catholic, saw the cinema as a means of faithfully reproducing the beauty of God’s creation. At Pauline at the Beach, this creed results in great, understated seasonal splendor: misty ocean views, blooming purple hydrangeas, and metallic bathers clinging to salt-doused tan limbs.
Pauline at the Beach is a good place to start for Rohmer’s work. Like most of his films, his speech is eloquent and incessant; the themes are sex, relationships and fidelity. His characters are tormented by indecision, tempted by their desires (often by a type frequently encountered in his previous films: The incorrigible but opaque woman), and even his most dejected individuals still cling to a shred of hope, and maybe some magical thought. Pauline, however, is a rare Rohmer heroine: light-eyed and reluctant to be sucked into the adult farce.
“You tell your stories,” says Pauline at the first Christmas group dinner, as if she were a premonition of the narratives that will be spun. While there may not be much orientation of those “old men” in their orbit, Pauline receives a wise lesson in self-deception. In the abrupt end of the trip, Marion tells Pauline that they must convince themselves of conflicting stories about their messy summer romances, to ease their heartache. “That way we will both be happy,” he says, as they walk away.
• Pauline at the Beach is broadcasting in Australia on Stan
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism