pauline & paulette (2002)

director: lieven debrauwer

dora van der groen, ann petersen, rosemarie bergmans

For anyone who sat through Sean Penn’s tic-ridden, excruciating performance as a mentally disabled man in I Am Sam last year, there’s an antidote at hand that might make it possible to watch movies about simpleminded characters again without wincing.

Lieven Debrauwer’s Pauline & Paulette doesn’t waste any time setting the machinery of its plot in motion. When we meet Pauline, an old woman with the mind of a toddler, she’s living with her sister Martha, the only member of her family willing to take responsibility for the woman. Pauline, however, worships Paulette, her plump, self-centred fusspot of a sister who runs a gift and notions shop in town and sings with a local operetta group. Within a few scenes, Martha is dead, leaving Paulette and Cecile, a fourth sister who escaped her family and hometown for life in Brussels, to take care of Pauline. All too aware of the plans of her sisters to institutionalize Pauline, Martha arranges her will so that they won’t get anything if they put Pauline away.

One look at Paulette’s red-themed shop and apartment, fussy and tidy and crammed with breakables, and you now how badly thing will go when Pauline moves in. What follows is one long, slow cringe as we wait for the inevitable; it happens on cue, and Paulette packs her sister off to live with Cecile in the city.

Cecile’s apartment is small, white, aggressively minimal, and shared with Albert, her uptight French boyfriend. Pauline escapes, but only after driving her sisters to bitterly forgo Martha’s money in order to wash their hands of Pauline.

Dora van der Groen’s performance as Pauline is the pivot around which the whole of the film turns, and it works perfectly. Pauline is both infuriating and charming, and her guilelessness seems natural, and not merely a necessary plot point unlike, say, Dustin Hoffman’s idiot innocence in Rain Man. The film isn’t entirely free of cloying aspects - including an ending that seems to come more from hope than logic - but every character is all too believable, even sympathetic (excepting Albert, of course, who never stood a chance), and elicit your sympathy imperceptibly but steadily.