Paulette: Empty Calories, by David Bax
Jérôme Enrico’s dreadful new “old ladies gone wild” comedy, Paulette, gets its best joke out of the way immediately. The opening titles play out over a montage of silent home videos detailing a young woman’s picturesque early life, culminating in a marriage to the love of her life and the couple realizing their dream of opening a successful bakery. Then we cut directly to the present, where we see that the bakery is now a Chinese restaurant and the young woman, Paulette (Bernadette Lafont in one of her final roles), has been widowed. This sweet person we felt we’d gotten to know is now bitter and hateful, seated in a confessional booth spewing racial epithets in a rant while a black priest listens with thinning patience. Don’t worry, she assures the man. She’s not referring to him. He’s more like a white person. It’s such a shocking shift that it elicits a laugh. Paulette now seems to be a dark comedy and the stage is perfectly set for this woman to exit the church and immediately get splattered across the pavement by an oncoming bus. The sick catharsis of that would’ve been sublime. Only that doesn’t happen. Paulette isn’t a dark comedy at all but rather a cheap and obvious one that only allows its lead to be a crotchety piece of shit so that her redemption can be phoned in during the third act.
Having fallen on hard times after the shuttering of her bakery and the death of her husband, Paulette now lives in a crummy, low-income walk-up in a neighborhood rife with drug crime. After having many of her belongings repossessed for not being able to pay her bills, she takes note of how much money the dealers make and decides to go into business for herself. There are a few failed attempts to sell hash straight up (buyers don’t trust her; other dealers threaten her) before she stumbles onto a new idea when her grandson accidentally puts some hash in a cake batter in what can only be described as a fit of angry baking. Now Paulette is an entrepreneur once again, in business with many of the same people she disgustingly decries to the priest.
Every time Enrico comes up to the brink of having an actual point to his story and setting, he about faces and befouls it with lazily broad comedy. The hypocrisy of a white person who sees herself as the exception to people of color in the same situation as her is a relevant topic. This ignorant and presumptuous form of bigotry has permeated the Western world for decades at least. Enrico is resolute in his refusal to examine it, though. Paulette is an almost objectively awful person but the film insists we see her as a hero with a minor flaw that can be easily fixed, not as an avatar for structural racism.
That’s likely because Paulette’s nastiness is not particularly remarkable in Enrico’s cynical vision of the world. Compassion is at a minimum, though Enrico thinks that sitcomish reaction shots are a worthy replacement for humanism. Criminals, cops and bystanders all display a universal lack of empathy or interest in the lives of individuals, with halfhearted exceptions being made for friends and family. Social standing and material possessions are paramount, not only to the characters populating the film but evidently to the work itself.
If there’s anything redeeming about Paulette, it’s accidental. There’s something in here about crime as a self-actualizing force for society’s marginalized but that’s likely a remnant of the elements that were stolen from The Wire with no consideration of context or import, like trying to pick bits of olive out of a loaf of bread and inevitably taking some of the good stuff with them. No, Enrico is only interested in cramming bad jokes about grannies and weed into a ready-made tale of personal redemption that’s obvious from the moment Paulette doesn’t get hit by that bus. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from literalizing it anyway, with a late return to the confessional booth wherein Paulette specifies and lists her many changes of heart. Like the characters in his movie, Enrico thinks we’re all idiots.