July 5, 2016
Welcome to the third week of my Summer of Rohmer, in which I fill the void of my own vacation-less summer by vicariously joining the beach holidays of Eric Rohmer’s neurotic, attractive, and hyper-articulate characters. I started the series by visiting a Saint-Tropez cottage in La Collectionneuse, followed with a scenic French Alps home in Claire’s Knee, while today I scurried off to a Normandy beach house in Pauline at the Beach. We have leapt from Rohmer’s cycle of “Moral Tales” to his “Comedies and Proverbs”, as well as his shift to female protagonists (which began with his previous film A Good Marriage (1982)).
Pauline at the Beach (1983) is set during the waning weeks of summer, with Marion (Arielle Dombasle) bringing her 15-year-old niece Pauline (Amanda Langlet) to spend a few parent-less weeks before they both have to return to work and school. There is a pressure to find friends and have a fling before the holiday runs out. The waifish blonde Marion is immediately pursued by two men, the dewy-eyed romantic Pierre (Pascal Greggory) and the older, pragmatic womanizer Henri (Feodor Atkine). Rohmer frames the film around Pauline’s observations. She is a quiet, almost background presence throughout, silently weighing Marion’s actions as she falls for Henri and keeps Pierre on her string. Rohmer leads off his Comedies and Proverbs films with a quote, and here it is one from Chretien de Troyes: “He who speaks too much does himself harm.” Marion, Pierre, and Henri talk incessantly about the nature of love, but show no knowledge of how to embody it. Instead they remain irrevocably wrapped up inside themselves. I produced the DVD and Blu-ray of Pauline at the Beach for Kino Lorber (complete with an Eric Rohmer interview and a fine booklet essay by Michelle Orange), so consider that a full disclosure of my biases.
The French summer holiday is unfathomably long to this American, who snags week-long respites if he can afford it. In Pauline at the Beach, Pauline has been vacationing for months, and wants to use the Normandy trip as a final unwinding before a return to responsibility. This is Marion’s only holiday, having spent the rest of the summer preparing her next fashion line. So there is already an inset anxiety – the fun is about to end. Pauline had spent the previous two months with her parents, and is free for the first time. Marion has started peeking at swatches for her fashion design job, which looms at the end of their stay. So the seductions and crushes seem to happen on fast forward – Marion immediately falls into bed with the mercenary Henri, and Pierre declares his undying love to her (they had a brief fling a few summers back). All the while Pauline stays silent, unwilling to take part in their philosophical parlor games, in which they intellectualize their respective thoughts on love, a Plato’s Symposium if held by untrammeled narcissists.
They all have different manners of self-regard. Henri believes himself to be a “nomad” who “can’t stand a woman who makes me think of her as furniture.” This is a flattering way for him to justify his serial womanizing, enabling their freedom instead of justifying his pursuit of pleasure. Marion, recently divorced, is not interested in freedom. She wants love to manifest physically (“I’ve never burned with love except in dreams”), and transport her beyond herself. It is a storybook vision. Pierre says that “passion that flames too quickly burns out too fast.” He is trying to position himself for Marion’s sake, as he knows she has never “burned” for him. He is playing a longer game, “for a deep and lasting love”, one that unfolds over time. His is the most grounded version, but he is too jealous and petty for him to realize his noble goals. He is always focusing on his own pain, his own feeling of being slighted, to have time to cultivate his higher emotions. Pauline only chimes in with, “I don’t agree with any of you, except maybe Pierre…You must know people to love them.”
Rohmer might have tweaked her phrase to say that he had to know people before they could act in his movies. He had first worked with Arielle Dombasle and Pascal Greggory in his 1979 stage production of Kleist’s Catherine de Heilbronn, which suffered withering reviews. The actors, however, were thrilled with the experience, and were eager to work in Rohmer’s collaborative, intensely rehearsed style once again. The story’s origins went back to some of his plays in the ’1950s, but it didn’t begin to take true shape until the late ’70s for a group of scenes he titled Loup, y es-tu? (Wolf, Are you There?). The totality came together on a train ride filled with loud soldiers. Rohmer is quoted in Eric Rohmer: A Biography: “under those conditions, I couldn’t read, it was impossible to read, but at the same time, ultimately, it’s easier to write. So I concentrated; I had a notebook and I began writing very fast without listening to what was being said around me and I really had the idea of the continuity of the film.” He kept tinkering with it up until the start of shooting on A Good Marriage.
In terms of casting the biggest question mark was Pauline. He found a photo of Amanda Langlet in the French Production Society’s file of child actors, and after a brief telephone call with her cast her on the spot. Fifteen years old, Rohmer treated her like any other member of the cast, consulting “her regarding the psychological details of her character”, recording her thoughts on a tape recorder. According biographers Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe, who listened to the tapes, “it is hard to distinguish directed improvisation from desultory conversation”, as Langlet blurred into the character of Pauline. Through all of this collaborative work Langlet gives a wonderfully subdued performance, a watcher and thinker not yet ready to take center stage in her own life.
Once again Nestor Almendros was the director of cinematography, though he had begun to get tired of Rohmer’s thrifty ways. Head camera operator Virgine Thevenet told de Baecque and Herpe: “In the United States, Nestor had become a star. Back in France, it drove him nuts to find Eric still quibbling about paying for his coffee.” The reigning visual influence on this film was Matisse, specifically his painting Romanian Blouse. The red, white, and blue color scheme would be adopted, and counter to their usual insistence on not altering locations, they would repaint hallways to keep the motif intact. Rohmer hung a reproduction in Langlet’s room, and Rohmer was delighted to find that she shrugged her shoulders in a manner similar to the painting in a restaurant scene with Greggory.
Pauline at the Beach was poorly received by French critics, with Le Figaro calling it “a strong contender for the prize for the most ridiculous film of 1983″, reserving the most damning insults for the “illiterate” dialogue and Arielle Dombasle’s performance. Perhaps the schematic nature of the dialogue plays better in translation, but Dombasle is a delight, a frothy, lightly comic performance around which the men circle and Pauline observes with bemused interest. The film was a still a financial success at home and abroad, and stands as one of Rohmer’s purely pleasurable works, from the location (the sad loveliness of an emptied out beach town) to the outfits (I don’t have the language for fashion, but my wife exclaimed any time Arielle Dombasle appeared in a new ensemble), to the romantic nettle woven by their pretty words. Marion, Henri, and Pierre cannot live up to those words, but Pauline, with her reflective, penetrating stare, offers the possibility of authenticity, and an enduring love.