Pauline at the Beach

Eric Rohmer died today, so I am publishing  a piece I wrote on Pauline at the Beach in 1984. It was written as a program note for a film series and presumes the reader will have just watched the movie, so it has both spoilers and a paucity of exposition. Mostly I’m posting it because of the wish in the opening paragraph that Rohmer would live another 25 years and make a movie a year. He didn’t produce annually, but he did survive exactly those 25 years, and managed to put out sixteen more features. I should’ve wished the same longevity for Nestor Almendros, mentioned in the piece. R.I.P. — Robert Horton

Pauline, and les autres, at the beach

One of my favorite cinematic daydreams involves Eric Rohmer: I ask myself, wouldn’t it be neat if Rohmer could somehow make one movie a year, for the next (say) twenty-five years? They wouldn’t all have to be masterpieces; it would be just something to hold on to, something to incorporate into the life cycle. I’m afraid the chances of this are slim, since Rohmer is getting on in years (he was christened Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer on April 4, 1920), but it’s one of those things that make for good daydreams.

Actually, we should feel lucky—Rohmer has been on a hot streak lately. Keep in mind he was a slow starter compared to some of his friends in the French New Wave. Rohmer made short films during the 1950s, and he was editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine in which Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol et al. vented their auteurist spleens, from 1957 to 1963. Those other fellows had already collected an armful of international awards by the time Rohmer completed his first widely-recognized feature, La collectioneuse, in 1967 (though he had been directing for some time already). That film was part of his contes moraux—Moral Tales—and the next entry, Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1968), brought him shoulder to shoulder with the world’s leading filmmakers. After he finished the Moral Tales, Rohmer took time out to pursue projects with settings completely different from the palpably modern landscapes of the six Moral Tales; predictably enough, The Marquise of O… (1976) and Perceval le Gallois (1978) were two of the best and most intriguing works of the decade.

Now Rohmer is right in the middle of another cycle. This one is called Comedies et Proverbes, and so far its titles are The Aviator’s Wife (1980), Le beau marriage (1982), and Pauline at the Beach (1983). Like the Moral Tales, this new series consists mostly of people talking about love, sex, freedom, and more love. For the most part, these people are absolutely ordinary, and their problems, while important to them, are not unusual or earth-shaking. Nothing that can’t be talked out.

Late in Pauline at the Beach, Pierre (Pascal Greggory), the skinny chap who looks a little like the death’s-head hero of Bunuel’s Un chien Andalou, talks about what love means to him. He can’t understand why Marion (Arielle Dombasle), who he loves, insists on loving Henri (Feodor Atkine), who does not love her. Wouldn’t it be logical for people to love the person best for them? Well, yes, that would be eminently logical, but behavior very often doesn’t have anything to do with logic; besides that, if people were always doing what’s best for themselves, life would not be terribly interesting—and an Eric Rohmer movie certainly wouldn’t have much to go on.

Anyway, it’s very funny for Pierre to be saying this, since—although he keeps saying he’s the only clear thinker in the bunch, and that he’s trying to show the other how foolish they’re being—he’s the most illogical in his consuming passion for Marion, who makes it clear right away that she is not interested in him. His peevishness combined with his remarkable knack for doing what’s worst for himself propels him though the series of gaffes that he makes during the course of the film.

But then, the characters in Pauline at the Beach are consistently saying things that are the opposite of what they really mean. In the first scene of the film, Marion and her fifteen-year-old cousin Pauline (Amanda Langlet) arrive at their summer beach place. Marion speaks some of the film’s first lines of dialogue in phrases dripping with TV-commercial sincerity: “Good—there’s no phone. I could spend hours here without moving,” etc. You don’t necessarily have to know what’s going to happen (in fact, you can just about take one look at this woman) to sense that these sentiments don’t exactly come from the bottom of her heart. This is not to suggest that she’s lying—no, that would be an erroneous sizing-up of the situation. Rather, she is the kind of person who enjoys having things her own way—she’s covering herself by saying these things. If the beach turns out to be deadsville, then she will have gotten the peace and quiet she supposedly wants. If, on the other hand, the vacation turns out to be a session of erotically-charged romance (as she probably and understandably expects), she’s ahead of the game. None of her self-delusions or corny sentiments—as when she goes on, a couple of scenes later, about “That unpredictable thing called love”—should be interpreted as condescension or disapproval on Rohmer’s part. Directorial attitude is crucial, and Rohmer’s attitude is one of bemused acceptance. Continue reading