Where do you begin when faced with an entire body of work by a director whose films you have never watched before? The sensible option would be his or her debut, of course, but often that’s not as readily available as something that arrived much later in their career, and there’s an argument to say you should begin with one of their most representative features anyway, regardless of when it was made. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I bought a copy of Pauline At The Beach, the eleventh of Éric Rohmer’s 25 films, so that has served as my way into the Frenchman’s lengthy filmography. It’s also the third in Rohmer’s six-film ‘comedies and proverbs’ series, which ran through most of the 1980s, and from what I can gather one of his most enduring and popular pieces from that decade, offering as good a summation of his style as any of his releases.
It takes place in north-western France at a popular beach resort, a typical setting for a Rohmer story, while it’s filmed in a technically straightforward, unshowy fashion, eschewing certain shots that the director felt were capable of breaking the fourth wall, such as close-ups, and in keeping with this the soundtrack only includes diegetic sound. It also features lots of brief shots of its characters arriving at or leaving various locations, something that Rohmer was apparently a fan of as it adds a layer of realism, given that most people do actually spend plenty of time travelling from place to place each day. The story is also typical of the director’s work in that it features a small cast of characters who are young, intelligent, talkative, and who tend not to follow the advice they give to others, or somehow act in a way that’s contrary to the things they say. Naturally that makes for some dry moments of comedy, especially with regard to the overall story arc: ostensibly this features a woman lecturing her younger cousin about relationships and then proceeding to make all manner of basic mistakes with her own love life during the ensuing 90 minutes, though she is somewhat hindered by her choice of partner.
It’s a droll tale in which a few of the characters do stupid or unpleasant things: lying, cheating, covering for others and picking the wrong partner when faced with a choice between two, ensuring that the fleeting holiday romances we see ultimately go nowhere. Amanda Langlet stars as the titular Pauline, 15 years old and staying with older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle), and I enjoyed watching both of their flings develop and fizzle out during the course of the film. Marion’s is the marginally more interesting plot line, given that it involves twin suitors, including an utter snake named Henri (Féodor Atkine); he’s a wholly unlikeable character who shows no loyalty to anyone and even molests the sleeping (and underage) Pauline near the end, referring to her as a ‘woman’ and innocently claiming that he was trying to seduce her. Langlet, Atkine and Dombasle are good, and the other two main actors, Simon de la Brosse and Pascal Greggory, also impress as a pair of beach bums who end up fighting one another after they’re both wronged by slimy alpha Henri. There are faint whiffs of a farcical sex comedy at times, but the film is at its strongest, and most enjoyable, during the long scenes that show two or three of the characters talking at length on the sand or confiding in one another in a well-used holiday cottage. The cinematography by Néstor Almendros – one of the greats – is perfunctory, although the sun-baked seaside certainly looks appealing.
Directed by: Éric Rohmer.
Written by: Éric Rohmer.
Starring: Pauline Langlet, Arielle Dombasle, Féodor Atkine, Simon de la Brosse, Pascal Greggory.
Cinematography: Néstor Almendros.
Editing: Cécile Decugis.
Running Time: 94 minutes.