November 16, 2001

Cornell Cinema: Pauline at the Beach

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Pauline at the Beach opens with an image of a closed gate. We later find out that behind this gate there is the house where Pauline and her older cousin, Marion, vacation. Since the film ends with this same image, one can’t help but wonder why the director, Eric Rohmer, chose the gate to symbolize the beginning and ending of the film. The gate could have many functions: it works just as a curtain at the theater does, as a symbol of how private lives are often most interesting behind closed doors, or as a way of declaring that once a film is finished, the audience is shut of out the characters’ lives.

These suggestions are all feasible within the film’s context. And in the case of this particular director, Eric Rohmer, trying to snuff out his authorial intent only gets one into trouble. Part of a series called Comedies and Proverbs, Pauline at the Beach is a romantic comedy, but without any of the connotations of that term. The film is not like My Best Friend’s Wedding, but is instead funny by virtue of witty dialogue and characters that are inherently a bit ridiculous.

The setting is the coast of Normandy during the summer. The characters are the beautiful temptress, Marion (Arielle Dombasle), her precocious cousin, Pauline (Amanda Langlet), Marion’s former lover, Sylvain, and Marion’s latest conquest, Henri. The scenes are almost all the same: characters talk about love, search for love, and then make love. This could potentially be boring, but fortunately the dialogue is provocative and the evolving plot is suspenseful.

Each character has some hangup about relationships and feels the need to voice it. Marion is in the middle of her divorce and is looking for someone new, who will make her “burn” with love. Pauline has never been in love and is still a virgin. The two women are hopeful and lustful. By contrast, the men seem jaded. Henri has loved and been loved, and is seemingly fed up with it. Sylvain swoons over Marion but to no avail.

The most interesting insight the film has to offer is that everyone would like to think they know what kind of relationship would be best for each other. For all their musing about what kind of love is the right kind, the characters can’t seem to find compatible partners. At the end of the film, the characters are scarred for having dangerously involved themselves with each other. Yet, it seems that a lesson has been learned for all.

While Marion and Henri seemed like a wonderful couple because they are both so frivalous and seemingly self-centered, by the end the development of their characters shows how different they really are. In the beginning of the film, Henri is a detached man who as a traveling ethnologist can’t stay in one place too long. But by the end he has a philosophic understanding of relationships. On the other hand, Marion appeared to have been sure of what kind of man would suit her perfectly, and it turns out that she was entirely wrong. She remains in denial of her misteps, making her seem as naive as 15-year old Pauline.

These characters are our representatives. Like them, we all have these questions about love and relationships. Their meditation on the subject is expressed in their dialogue, and as they speak for us and volunteer to make mistakes for us, we can’t help feel like in some way we are watching ourselves on the screen. We only get to watch these characters for a few hours but their conflicts will be considered long after we close the gate on the subject.

Archived article by Diana Lind