Gentle, charming and decidedly quiet, Eric Rohmer’s 1983 French summer comedy about the foibles of romance manages to impart some discriminating truths regarding the complications of love. Very much a chamber drama of four principle players, Pauline at the Beach is the tale of a young adolescent girl and her older female cousin vacationing on the beaches of Normandy, France.
Pauline (Amanda Langlet), a tomboyish teenager, curiously observes her older cousin Marion’s (Arielle Dombasle) flirtatious influence over the opposite gender while lounging around on the beach. While Pauline is, at first, merely amused by Marion’s interactions with her ex-beau Pierre (Pascal Greggory), there’s a growing desire within her to fully understand what this whole business of love and sex is all about.
In fact, Pauline takes a rather mature and practical look at male-female relationships; she believes that such relationships should simply be taken for what they are. Marion, an off-handed romantic who wants fire with her love, dismisses Pauline’s outlook as the ignorance of an inexperienced teenager. Pierre has a few thoughts on the matter as well, and offers some views from the male perspective. There’s also Henri, a much older man who has his eye on Marion; he’s a free-spirit who couldn’t care much about settling down and insinuates himself into the lives of these vacationing friends.
Pauline eventually grows bored with the company, writing off these conversations as grown-up talk. That is, until she meets Sylvain (Simon de la Brosse). Sylvain is a boy her own age and the two hit it off. It’s not that Pauline wants to fall in love. It’s that she can’t help it. When things start to heat up between the two teenagers, Marion and Henri soon have their own tryst. Meanwhile, old feelings begin to stir within Pierre, Marion’s ex-boyfriend, and when jealousies spill over, Pauline soon learns that you really can’t take a relationship for what it is.
Rohmer’s comedies have always polarized audiences. They are light and breezy, yet unreservedly cerebral. Viewers will either find themselves thoroughly engaged with the serious discussions on the matters of love and life, or they will be bored to tears. In Pauline on the Beach, Rohmer does the great service of placing his story in a gorgeously serene and inviting setting; the summery backdrop of sand and sea presents an innocuous atmosphere of warmth and safety. Yet beneath the placid surface fester long-forgotten feelings of desire and envy which refuse to die.
Pauline may be young and inexperienced, but that inexperience actually serves her. She’s free to explore love headfirst, with all its joys and anxieties; her mistakes are anticipated and, therefore, necessary for her development as a young woman. Marion, on the other hand, cannot seem to get a clue and her silly attempts to quench her thirst for sexual thrills marks her as a grown women whose understanding of love is rather underdeveloped. As all the adults get their backs up (in more than one sense) over their relationship woes, it is Pauline who emerges with a most valuable insight that allows her to see through the phoniness of all the grown-up talk.
Kino Lorber’s transfer of Pauline at the Beach does a very nice job of presenting the film with colour tones evenly balanced. This is a film that, for much of the running time, takes place in natural light; skin tones, shadows and landscape colours are handsomely rendered. Being that this is a feature from 1983, it’s shot on film. There’s a proper amount of grain (for those cinephiles who love it) and it never interferes with the picture.
Sound comes through clearly and, given that this is a talky film, emphasis is placed on the dialogue. Supplements include a booklet essay, which details the themes of the film, as well as an archived interview with filmmaker Rohmer, who has since passed away. The film is in French with English subtitles.
Rohmer’s take it or leave it approach is precisely why viewers should try at least one of his films. His uncompromising essays on heterosexual relationships examine the emotional inclinations of love, which force men and women to commit acts they can never seem to explain. Indeed, his films are leisurely and studied, and they require a certain amount of reflection. They’re worth the time, as they’re often revealing windows into the psyches of lovers.
Rohmer explores the psychological scope of love with a delicate but sure hand; he never insists on a point of view, but probes gently an already ongoing debate. Pauline at the Beach is one of his more accessible works in which humour, romance and drama go together just as easily as sun, sand and sea.