With Tchaikovsky and Strauss waltzes on the soundtrack and images of densely packed red roses, Pauline and Paulette engenders some initial qualms–beware the forthcoming sentimentality! There is no cause for worry. On the contrary, writer-director Lieven Debrauwer’s film about four elderly sisters avoids the easy, saccharine emotions and maintains a wry point of view, filled with telling detail and subtle perceptions into the human heart.
Pauline (Dora van der Groen) is mentally retarded, unable to spread jam on her bread or tie her shoelaces. She lives a pleasant enough life with her patient sister Martha (Julienne De Bruyn) in a lovely house in a small Belgian town. She keeps a scrapbook filled with pictures of flowers and happily waters the garden. But more than anything, she adores her sister Paulette (Ann Petersen) who owns a fabric store and is the reigning diva of the local amateur operetta company.
The problem is that Paulette has little patience and resents even Pauline’s minor intrusions into her ordered shopkeeper’s life. With her strands of pearls, heavy makeup, and careful coiffure, Paulette could be a Belgian Mary Kay, living in a house full of pink frilliness and kitschy porcelain figurines.
The fourth sister, Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), is a bit younger and has removed herself from family responsibilities, living in Brussels. Pauline hardly knows her.
Martha dies suddenly and the sisters learn that her will instructs that the three survivors will share equally in her estate, so long as one of the other sisters provides a home for Pauline. If not, all the money will be used to pay for Pauline’s care in an institution. Paulette has dreams of retiring to the seaside and Cecile would like a cottage in Spain–they are loathe to give up their inheritances. But neither wants to have Pauline impinge on their established lives, neither has much interest in tying her shoelaces and spreading jam on her bread at breakfast each morning. (That no one thought to buy her shoes with Velcro closures is a point slyly made later on.)
Debrauwer follows each attempt at resolving the sisters’ quandary, each situation filled with small incidents that illuminate the characters of the three surviving sisters and the nature of their family ties. He works with impeccable taste, never milking a situation for a cheap tear, never extending a scene beyond just the right length to make its point. He maintains a delicate balance as well: the sisters may be selfish and self-centered, but they are responsible, too, and they are emotionally connected to Pauline. And Pauline, an innocent, does have special needs and requires constant attention.
Dora van der Groen (Leonie, Antonia’s Line) is fine as Pauline, in the sort of performance that calls to mind Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Sean Penn in I am Sam. Pauline’s limitations are on display, but so is her humanity. Even when she most embarrasses Paulette, it is an expression of love. Ann Petersen’s Paulette is a marvel–even as she is visibly impatient and snaps at Pauline, her unarticulated and conflicted inner feelings are traveling across her face; she conveys far more than mere dialogue allows.
In the film’s denouement, a phony Hollywood ending seems to be bearing down, but trust Mr. Debrauwer. His ending is bittersweet, believable, insightful, and consonant withwhathas come before. Pauline and Paulette will inevitably be labeled a "small film," but if it is that, it is also very big indeed, in its humanity and in its artistry.