Rohmerathon: Pauline at the Beach, by Scott Nye
Rohmer departs from his convention in two significant ways with 1983’s Pauline at the Beach. It is his first film featuring a teenage protagonist, and, not coincidentally, it is his first with a passive one as well. Most films about teenagers posit them in the dreaded “coming-of-age” genre, which ensures they will make a lot of the stupid mistakes kids make but also remain, disproportionate to their familial status, captains of their own destiny. Pauline (Amanda Langlet) isn’t even nominally beholden to her parents – her older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle) is her guardian for a trip to the northern coast in the waning weeks of summer. But teenagers, famous though they may be for their misbehaving and their loud music, are often quite withdrawn people, more content with their own thoughts and fleeting obsessions than engaging in a conversation with adults, even those they like.
Pauline is as much admiring of Marion as she is fascinated by her. Tall, blonde, and a little flighty, she seems miles away from the sort of person Pauline is becoming, socially and physically. Pauline marvels at the fact that Marion’s already been married and divorced, assigning wisdom to the experience that may not exactly bear out. We start to see Marion through Pauline’s eyes, especially once they make their two key vacation acquaintances. Pierre (Pascal Greggory) is a longtime friend and one-time fling of Marion’s who sees in her divorce another opportunity to consummate his love. He has become acquainted with Henri (Féodor Atkine), a womanizing ethnographer, who takes the briefest excuse to introduce and force himself into Marion’s social scene. She is more immediately taken with his brazen confidence and worldliness than with Pierre’s lapdog neediness, and so sets off the central conflict.
It’s not that Pauline doesn’t have a life of her own, but her story is dependent on developments in Marion’s. She quickly hits it off with another boy, Sylvain (Simon de la Brosse)…while he was ogling Marion. They later have a rift…because Sylvain took the blame for something Henri did. Pauline has one of Rohmer’s more complex plots, and quite a lot hinges on how honest someone is about walking in on something at just the wrong moment, which can make it feel a tad overwrought. Rohmer reportedly spent much longer on this story than he typically does, and you can certainly see the work, for better or worse.
It’s not that I don’t like Rohmer when he’s this intricate – most of my favorites (A Summer’s Tale, Love in the Afternoon, and The Aviator’s Wife certainly) rely a great deal on coincidence, overlapping narratives, mistaken identity, and other side effects of elaborate narrative architecture. But the combination of this story being viewed from a slight remove through Pauline, mixed with its complexity, means Rohmer often has some catching-up to do from scene to scene. Sometimes this is handled extremely elegantly – Pauline finding Marion lying naked in bed with an unexpected man carries a lot of emotional and narrative weight – but other times it’s relegated to purely expository dialogue.
Nevertheless, Pauline’s outsider perspective makes this soap opera much more resonant than it would be on its own. To be stuck with Marion’s shortsightedness, Henri’s manipulations, and Pierre’s passive-aggressive faux-romanticism, one might go damn near insane. Pauline’s vantage allows us to see their flaws clearly, to pity them a little, to see the ways in which she hopes she doesn’t grow up, and which we might fear we already have. Passive protagonists like Pauline get a bad rap in screenwriting-guru-type circles. It’s understandable – the suspicion is that they aren’t actively involved in the story. But because we see these events unfold from Pauline’s point-of-view, she becomes an active participant in, if not the story, then certainly the film. She crafts our experience of it. That makes her plenty active.
After a few films off, cinematographer Nestor Almendros returns for his final collaboration with Rohmer. The influence of their work together on The Marquise of O and Perceval is evident here, and they’ve both grown considerably since the Moral Tales. They seemed to have gained a deeper, richer common language from which to work, and I’ll be very curious to see if Rohmer can at all retain it without him (or if he has any interest in doing so). It’s not just the loveliness of the French coast, though lovely it is – it’s a way Almendros has of making ordinary people and activities into subjects worthy of a painting. Some of this is in the blocking and posing, never overly tidy or ostentatious, but casually arranged in an evocative way. More is in the lighting; soft, sunny, and warm. We are, as is frequently the case with Rohmer, lulled into a calm before being pummeled with a nasty sort of drama. Rohmer never lets his characters truly take a vacation.
It’s not quite as jarring a juxtaposition as La Collectioneuse, which is both more overtly lovely in its imagery and more overtly mean in its drama, but it has a vulgarity that called that earlier film to mind. It took quite awhile for me to write about this film, and I apologize to anyone who might have missed this column. The truth is that I just couldn’t quite figure it out. I watched it (last October!), and watched it again, and looked at the case, and put it down, and read about it, and thought about it, and forgot about it, then tried to think about it some more, then read more about it, and worried I’d never get back to this piece so wrote down whatever I could, then abandoned it, then watched it again, then skipped around to different scenes, then it finally hit me.
It’s rare that the revelations that come out of these sorts of long day’s journeys into night are all that earth-shattering. Like therapy, it’s usually some basic thing that you needed to be reminded about. So after months of on-and-off consideration, here’s the conclusion I’ve come to – I just flat-out felt awful for Pauline and especially Marion. I realized how much the film reminded me of the times I’ve been as manipulative as Henri, as demanding and possessive as Pierre, as thoughtless as Sylvain. These are typical Rohmer men in many ways; passively cruel, uncaring or unaware of the emotional effect they have. But Rohmer usually sets his films from a man’s point of view, where we can casually observe but safely the deny the gravity of their offenses. We can recognize their negative behavior without having to directly experience its consequences, only intuit how it might be received.
Again, I have no illusions that I’m so much better than Rohmer’s men (well…maybe a couple of them). And I don’t think Rohmer does either. He was a Catholic; I was brought up around Catholicism. Much of the “guilt” often discussed in relation to it stems from how it encourages – even forces – you to recognize yourself as a sinner, and recognize all sinners in yourself. No one is better than anyone else. I’ve always admired Rohmer for his casual empathy, which all at once views his characters from something of a distance, pities and belittles them, and asks the viewer to align themselves with them. When I see their sometimes-reprehensible behavior, I might not see a specific thing I’ve done, but I see how the motivation behind things I have done is reflected in them.
So in Pauline at the Beach, I’ve certainly had my days of expecting my romantic feelings requited because I fit the “right” sort of profile. When Pierre constantly goes off at Marion about how awful Henri is and only he’s right for her because he’s so nice…I might not have said it as directly, but I sure as hell got it across. When Henri exploits Marion’s affection for him to get his sexual kicks, while feeling nothing for her and making plans with other women…I can’t say my life has been quite as adventurous, but I get where he’s coming from.
The really gutting part is that none of this directly fazes Marion. She remains steadfast, always forgiving Henri and humoring Pierre. The dedication she displays, in a classical Hollywood film meant for Ingrid Bergman or Jean Arthur, might be sweet and noble. In a Rohmer film, it’s a form of denial, and it eventually becomes exactly that. Marion has to concoct a fiction just to retain her positive feelings toward the men.
I can only speak to this as a man. I know I’ve been in Marion’s position, inventing necessary fictions to try to think the best of people. But I also know I’ve wronged plenty in the way Marion is wronged. I’ve never been under any illusions that they thought ill of me for it; what Pauline at the Beach suggests is, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they went way out of their way to make it all seem normal. And really, that feels a hell of a lot worse. While I’ve certainly worked on myself and like to think I’m past the worst of it, the only way to truly reform is to recognize you are still the same person, you always will be, and you have to reckon with your unpleasant tendencies every day.
That’s a tough emotional space to sit in, which Rohmer subverts in a characteristically lovely way at the film’s close, leaving us in a peaceful retreat that’s hardly been calamitous, but has not exactly been a space for peace either. But Pauline at the Beach is the perfect example of why characters in a movie probably shouldn’t be likable – such characters only flatter the audience, positing ourselves as underdogs or saviors or whatever else. Pauline forces us to reckon with our sins, or at the very least, the sins we tolerate. One needn’t be Catholic to see that.