What are the odds on any given day of seeing a film about an elderly, mentally challenged Belgian woman? Given that this particular population must be pretty small, not to mention the number of directors inclined to film them, I’d say the odds are fairly minute, which is why I was intrigued by Pauline and Paulette: it’s not every day that you see an older adult with mental disabilities as the star in an internationally distributed film.
Pauline and Paulette tells the story of Pauline (Dora van der Groen), who lives with one of her three sisters, Marthe (Julienne De Bruyn). Marthe has taken care of Pauline since their mother died many years ago. When Marthe also dies unexpectedly, Pauline must go to live with one of their remaining sisters, Cecile Rosemarie Bergmans) or Paulette (Ann Petersen).
It seems that Marthe had realized in advance that Paulette and Cecile, being selfish, might abandon Pauline when she was no longer around to take care of her. Thus, her will sets out two options for Pauline’s future care: either she will live with and be cared for by one of the sisters, in which case the estate will be divided among the three; or Pauline will go to an institution and inherit the entire estate. This arrangement seems unfair to the sisters, who ask the town notary if they can just, like, “rip up the will.”
It’s not clear how much money we’re talking about, but the sisters’ greed gets the better of them. They decide to take turns housing their older sister “temporarily.” Very temporarily: the sisters wimp out as soon as they discover that Pauline still can’t tie her own shoes or cut her own food. Still, institutionalization is not an option: the sisters physically recoil when the suggestion is made. (The film lets you decide whether it’s the promise of cash or their sincere compassion for Pauline that prevents them from dumping her in a residence.)
Pauline boards first with Paulette, who every year stars in the local operetta (she has a reputation as the local “diva”), and owns a tasteful, if frilly, lingerie store. She soon discovers that Pauline is a handful, an unintentional troublemaker, and unable to comprehend Paulette’s dedication to “saving face.” After Pauline embarrasses the pants off Paulette, she goes to stay with flaky Cecile, who lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Brussels with her pretentious boyfriend, Albert (Idwig Stephane). With Albert, Flemish screenwriters Jaak Boon and Debrauwer (who also directs), take aim at Belgium’s French legacy. Albert is stereotypically “French”: anal-retentive, impeccably dressed, domineering, and highly pretentious, waxing pseudo-intellectual in art museums and whining like a baby when he can’t finish watching a movie on TV.
Albert is also the first glimpse we get of a difficult reality: he’s incredibly hostile to Pauline, refusing to talk to, look at, or be around her. He’s profoundly uncomfortable living with her; at one point, he berates Cecile for leaving him alone with Pauline for five minutes. Unfortunately, we never see Albert get the beat-down he so desperately deserves (or insipid, spineless Cecile, for that matter, for staying with him).
The filmmakers’ willingness to take on such unglamorous, difficult subject matter is definitely worthy of applause. But their over-reliance on convention kills the plot. There is zero suspense here, and although Van der Groen and Petersen have fabulous chemistry, there’s no room in the script for them to really develop characters. So, it’s not surprising that the film is ultimately about as inspiring as a Hallmark card. The repeated juxtaposition of Pauline’s simpleton happiness with Paulette’s self-interested bitchiness ultimately gets trite and as a result, the film begins to feel like a recycled episode of Touched by an Angel.
Debrauwer’s reliance on reductive depictions of mentally challenged people as impish and childlike is irritating, and he pounds this metaphor home in as many ways as he can. Montages of inanimate objects (such as dolls, clothes, mannequins) are contrasted with long sequences featuring Pauline watering flowers (a job she loves) and pasting pictures of flowers into her scrapbook. These long shots are set to a thunderous rendition of that favorite of little girls everywhere: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. (Think: Fantasia meets Rainman.) Pauline’s obsessions with the color pink, with roses, with Paulette’s perfume and frilly clothes all serve to reify this basic point — that Pauline’s really just an annoying younger sister who wants to tag along with the big girls, much to their chagrin.
However, the film also addresses the poor treatment often afforded mentally challenged older folks. Her sisters and the people in her small Belgian community treat Pauline with complete disdain. When customers come into Paulette’s lingerie shop, they talk about Pauline in the third person, as if she’s not standing right there. The upshot is that, although she’s made to feel subhuman and unwanted by almost everyone with whom she interacts, Pauline looks especially “human” by comparison. She’s also, in the end, a valuable model and teacher: you will not be on the edge of your seat wondering which of the sisters will undergo a dramatic Change of Heart. Just read the title.