Written and directed by Éric Rohmer
Éric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach, the third of six films in the director’s so-called “Comedies and Proverbs” series, begins and ends with the same sounds and sights: birds slightly chirping over the image of a closed wooden fence surrounded by blooming greenery. This audio-visual grouping may not in itself have meaning, but what is worth noting is the fact that this cyclical bookend structure mirrors what transpires for the main characters of this 1983 picture, for while their misadventures over the course of a few days may cause a fair share of commotion, they ultimately seem go about their lives as if nothing ever happened.
When teenage Pauline (Amanda Langlet) arrives at a Normandy vacation spot with her somewhat older cousin, Marion (Arielle Dombasle), the locale seems to be an isolated spot, with no phone and no neighbors. It should be a peaceful holiday, one that will allow for Marion to get some indeterminate work done. Pauline says she might go to beach, or maybe not. Marion says she’ll be disappointed. Don’t expect much from the area. Most people, after all, have already left for the season (as it turns out, nearly everywhere they go is continually populated). The two speak casually of Pauline’s juvenile courtships, such as they are at her age, a topic toward which Pauline herself seems rather ambivalent.
This initial tone of lessened expectations and come-what-may nonchalance keeps the early portion of the film relaxed and idyllic. But everything quickly changes when the two do go to the beach. In spite of the opening leisurely mood, a gradually increasing level of conflict is initiated when Marion immediately encounters Pierre (Pascal Greggory), a former lover who still harbors feelings for the suddenly now enthusiastically social cousin. Next up is Henri (Féodor Atkine), an apparent friend of Pierre’s (though their association proves to be tenuous at best). Henri is for a time joined by his young daughter, but she soon leaves, freeing him up for what we come to discover is a pastime penchant for womanizing.
With Pauline temporarily on the adolescent sidelines, the trio of Marion, Pierre, and Henri are eager to question one another about their past loves and current desires, and are equally keen to answer—at length. As the adults are endlessly talkative, Pauline is generally bored to death. She is already above much of this quixotically egocentric banter, something she demonstrates throughout the film. Nevertheless, she too gets in on the discussion, albeit to a far less effusive extent, and the quartet begins to jointly speak openly and eloquently about romance and attraction as only characters in a French film can.
Later in the evening, Pierre comes on a little heavy handed as he tries to rehash the relationship he once had with Marion, but Henri’s comparative restraint is deceiving, and it is he who ends up sleeping with the young woman. Within a few minutes, Pauline at the Beach is firmly entrenched in a seething love triangle; add Pauline and her soon to be introduced teenage suitor Sylvain (Simon de La Brosse), and the picture becomes quite the complicated love pentagon.
Everything comes to a head when Marion surprises Henri, who, in her very brief absence, has indiscreetly switched sexual allegiances to Louisette (Rosette). He swiftly arranges things so it appears Sylvain is the one sleeping with Louisette, which upsets Pauline, while the scorned Pierre saw what was really happening, which upsets his already jealous character even more now that he has witnessed Henri’s betrayal. Here the Chrétien de Troyes quote that opens the film becomes especially appropriate: “Qui trop parole, il se mesfait” (“A wagging tongue bites itself”). Pierre spills the beans, but since he and Marion saw things differently, they tell different truths, which get further muddled by Henri’s lies. Pierre begins to pry, hoping to get to the bottom of the whole ordeal, but it really doesn’t matter. By this point, the damage is done, and the truth most likely wouldn’t change any minds anyway. Everyone falls back on what they think they saw, what they have subsequently been told, and what they simply want to believe, all in a round and round of hearsay and interpretation.
That there is sincerity on any side of this entanglement is questionable. All the romances in the film have the sustainability of a passing storm. To his credit, Pierre earnestly bares his true feelings; at the very least, he expresses an admirable dismay for cruising men like Henri. But he too conveys the impression of virulent possessiveness, just like Henri, who, in opposition to what he may expect from his women, sleazily prides himself as being “free as a bird.” Through it all there is a pronounced male versus female sparring match, and while Pauline may get an age-restricted pass, Marion emerges from the amorous web with her frivolous nature also revealed. At the conclusion of the film, Pauline asks, “Why don’t we go home?” evidently having had enough of the dramatics. “Already?” responds Marion, who evidently hasn’t.
Against the lush backdrop of trees and foliage, the beach and the sea, everything about Pauline at the Beach‘s location is simply beautiful, its visual splendor invaluably aided by master cinematographer Néstor Almendros, setting the scenic stage for the whimsical tenor of the film and the lives of those who inhabit it. Rohmer’s unobtrusive direction compliments and bolsters the tremendously naturalistic performances from all the actors. These are great looking people — not just in that they are attractive, but that they seamlessly embody these individuals; there is nothing about their physical appearance or their demeanor that in any way seems false, even if their characters exist in the realm of imprudence, pretense, and deceptiveness.
Despite this apparently careless or uncomplicated existence, however, what transpires in Pauline at the Beach—between the fences—is considerably meaningful for all involved, even if just for a time. This mixture of fleeting insignificance and the potentially lasting impression that an impassioned holiday can have creates an odd sort of emotional paradox, one symbolically barred but yet opened and closed as needed, and it all contributes to an excellent romantic tale from one of France’s great directors.