Pauline and Paulette

(Pauline en Paulette)

Last year, the Academy nominated Everybody Famous! from Belgium as one of the films for Best Foreign Picture. Mirimax, hoping to utilize the power of this nomination, released the film later with disastrous results, and quickly pulled the film from theaters before most people had a chance to see it (this site included). This year, Belgium submitted Pauline and Paulette, which did not receive a nomination. Yet it has many of the same elements that Academy members love, especially good, mature acting, and a sentimental story. In fact, Pauline and Paulette won big at the Belgian equivalent of the Academy Awards. Its success lies in its sense of balance. It is able to carefully navigate between real emotion and cheap sentimentality.

The two title characters are sisters. Pauline (Dora van der Groen, Mariken, Piranha Blues) is mentally deficient, has a yen for watering flowers, and hates it when her shoes are untied. She also adores her sister Paulette (Ann Petersen, Left Luggage, Manneken Pis), a local fabric storeowner and small time opera singer. Paulette views Pauline as a nuisance. Pauline lives with another sister, Martha (Julienne De Breyn, Hellgat). A fourth sister, Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), lives in Brussels. Martha dies suddenly, and leaves a provision in her will stating that Paulette and Cecile will share the inheritance only if Pauline lives with one of them. Both would rather institutionalize Pauline, but their greed gets the better of them.

It sounds pretty mean-spirited, but writer/director Lieven Debrauwer (Leonie, Dichten...wat is dichten dan?) and co-writer Jaak Boon (Le Plombier) do two things to resolve this. Most importantly, they do not overplay the cuteness of Pauline. She can be a real pain sometimes. Along with the mental capacity of a young child, she also has the same tenacity and stubbornness. Second, they humanize Paulette. She loves Pauline, but is not prepared to deal with her on a full-time basis. Although she is reluctant to take Paulette in, she does. Cecile does also, but things are worse on her end. Pauline does not recognize Cecile as her sister, and Cecile's boyfriend (Idwig Stephane, Children's Play, The King is Dancing) only speaks French.

Eventually, Paulette realizes that somebody needs to care for Pauline. It's here that Pauline and Paulette begins to tug at the heartstrings. Debrauwer wants to show that Pauline, even with her limited intelligence, can teach something to the far smarter Paulette. Paulette thinks her life is full with her store and her opera, but in actuality, it is empty. All these are superficial things, and she needs something more substantial for a full life. Strong yet simple performances by Petersen and especially van der Groen drive this home.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 18 minutes, Dutch and French with English subtitles, Rated PG for brief language.

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