Éric Rohmer’s third Comédies et proverbes from the 1980s is yet another masterful grasp of the human language of, and lessons in, love. Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach) is a delectable, perceptive, heart-on-sleeve entry into our 1983 in Film series. Rohmer had delved with such affairs for three decades before Pauline stepped onto that beach. And he would continue to do so for two decades or so more.
Arriving at a friend’s vacant Normandy house for vacation, 15 year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet) and her adult cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle), break out the conversation of amour with intelligent, yet youthful, promise and ponderment. Although Marion has been married, she seeks a kind of alliance with her much younger cousin. “You even seem to be my age.” Their candid conversations, as well as demonstrating an enduring bond, would assume they were the same age if you didn’t know.
Pauline is all too well aware of her age. And where that may or may not fit her in the French ideas of love. Her outlook on the potential for people her own age to be around during their summer break, is less about longing for companionship, and more a spotlight on the teenager’s emotional intelligence. Or at least, that’s how we, the audience might perceive it.
When they hit the beach, Marion stumbles upon an old flame, surf instructor Pierre (Pascal Greggory). In turn, Pierre is approached by Henri (Féodor Atkine), who half jests about not getting a surfing lesson. Amidst a casual get-to-know-you chit-chat, the foursome will meet that evening. Rohmer is a dab-hand at writing everyday scenarios where strangers meet and arrange dinner like old friends. On reflection it’s effortless and charming, not matter the topic of discussion.
The late gathering at Henri’s house is dominated by inquires about each others lives. With seemingly genuine interest, rather than appearing intrusive. The focus is love, naturally, how well they know it, how they see it, and ultimately what they want. The stronger opinions are challenged, personal questions and declarations go back and forth. Marion takes much of the limelight here – “waiting for that unpredictable thing called love.” The older cousin speaks like love is still new to her, almost an undiscovered land. It might be incomprehensible, she does not truly know, only that love is an enigma. To know of it, what it is, is not to experience it for yourself necessarily.
Far quieter, Pauline is soon lightly grilled on her love-life. A head-shake tells the no-love story. “You told me you had been.” Marion acts taken aback. “Maybe I made it up.” Pauline retorts, the kind of honesty you would forgive a child for. A child with a mature outlook no less. There’s even humor in Pauline’s history as she tells of a boyfriend she had, who was a lot older than her – which briefly gets everyone’s attention. Turns out he was 12, she was 6. Brilliant. Love is about being faithful, about trust, about burning, it might even be a dream. The group surmise the peak emotion as a thing of many forms. Marion’s self-aware reference that they are all so opaque is spot-on, then.
Already, Rohmer has established the natural flair for talking about love. Mirroring the very real, and ongoing, education about such an abstraction. His dialogue is short and snappy, without ever coming across rushed or stylized. For the record, Pauline à la plage is the finest screenplay of 1983 in my view. The plot branches out with every word spoken. To Pierre’s dismay, Marion hooks up with Henri, who then beds the candy apple girl Louisette (Rosette). Pauline meanwhile has met a boy her own age (I think), in Sylvain (Simon de la Brosse). He later visits Henri during his extra-curricular activities with Louisette, and the youngster is implicated as the wrong-doer to deflect from Henri. Oops.
Part of Rohmer’s talent and charm as a filmmaker is that he is unflashy with his camera, and pitch-perfect with his dialogue. In fact, as the tale tumbles along, the characters start to put the pieces together the more interactions take place. And late on it is one of the only times the camera zooms slowly on Pauline – now figuring it all out. Yet she seems unphased, rather disappointed. Perhaps not integral to Rohmer, but when Pauline is placed in the background, or given a more passive presence, she pays attention, learning, mentally taking notes no doubt. Pauline is a perceptive soul, she can see the adults tripping themselves up better than they can.
As the adults scramble around, lying, prying, keeping their cards close to their chest, the youngsters say it as it is, express what their hearts tell them, thus becoming the more noble generation here. And as the characters continue to show their true colors, we take our own sides. When Henri strokes the sleeping Pauline’s leg, he gets an impulsive kick to the chest for his troubles. Or rather his sheer nerve. The behavior Pauline has witnessed on her so-called holiday allows her the claim “I don’t understand men, especially old ones. They’re never straightforward.” Her rejection of Henri (rightly so) is not solely based on her age, but that he is indeed a rascal. Rohmer does not insist on age-gap relations or inappropriate romances, but in today’s tainted modern romance, there would be no tolerance for such notions. Tres bien dear Éric.
In the end, the whole shenanigans prove to be an invigorating delight for its audience. The intertwined love / romance / attraction, whether simple or complex, is thrown around, just like in real life don’t you forget. And the candid discussions or mellow interrogation cause many a troubled human heart or even the occasional faux pas. The rolling flow of conversations, often in depth and frank, are not hard to follow. They are relatable too, to many of us, on different levels. Inviting, honest, smart, beyond many of our own aspirations or experiences, Pauline à la plage is a true treasure. Good luck finding its match these days.