Anybody who takes a second, sorrowful look at the charred rubble in lower Manhattan, the body counts in the West Bank or the brazen denials of Slobodan Milosevic will have to conclude that the brotherhood of man isn't attracting many good recruits these days. Neither, for that matter, is the sisterhood of woman. Ruthless self-interest and blind tribalism rule the planet, as they have for centuries, and neither George W.'s pals at Enron nor Osama bin Laden can make any case to the contrary.
In Lieven Debrauwer's Pauline and Paulette, a Belgian-Dutch co-production that dramatizes the abandonment of a retarded woman by her two younger sisters, we see, in miniature, an ugly representation of the world's inhumanity. Many viewers may find themselves unwilling to make such a leap from the specific to the general. So be it. But in a climate where terrorists murder thousands and responding military forces brush aside the accidental bombings of Red Cross hospitals, a clear-eyed meditation on a family that fails to love and honor one of its own must surely produce some wider emotional ripples.
Young Debrauwer won't win any prizes for sugarcoating the truth. His halting, plain-faced heroine, played to heartbreaking effect by an extraordinary actress named Dora van der Groen, doesn't have the comic buoyancy of Dustin Hoffman's savant in Rain Man or the quiet charm of Tom Hulce's mildly retarded garbage man in Dominick and Eugene, and she doesn't manage to redeem a sibling in the time-honored Hollywood manner. Neither is her slow-wittedness momentarily transformed into genius, as Cliff Robertson's was in Charly.
Pauline and Paulette
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Instead, the profoundly helpless Pauline, who appears to be in her sixties, inhabits a space so obviously confined that she discomfits anyone who passes by, whether it's the gruff local butcher or her own family. Unable to tie her shoes or butter her bread, this poor woman passes her days pasting scraps of magazine photos into an album, sprinkling a flower garden to the lilt of a Strauss waltz on the soundtrack and gazing with childlike glee into her sleepy town's sleepy shop windows. Her life has a soothing regularity, if little else.
The crisis arises when Pauline's longtime caregiver, her sister Martha (Julienne de Bruyn), collapses and dies in their spotless kitchen. Pauline doesn't see the reality -- "Nice cup broken! Martha asleep on floor!" she reports -- but soon enough she feels the chill emanating from her two remaining sisters. Plump, bossy Paulette (Ann Petersen), whom Pauline adores, runs a little dress shop and lives to sing in the annual community operetta; she certainly doesn't have the time or inclination to take care of her nuisance of a sister. Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), the youngest of the clan, now lives in Brussels, and while she is less dismissive of her dependent sister's needs, she's preoccupied by her budding romance with a prickly Frenchman (Idwig Stephane). Unwanted, Pauline shuttles back and forth between Paulette's stern impatience and Cecile's benign half measures.
The beauty in van der Groen's performance, and its subtle power, lies in the way she reacts to the sisters' vexations. Pauline may have the mental capacity of a three-year-old, but she also has the sensitivity of one. So each careless slight registers in her wide-eyed face before her attention flicks on to something else, and we get the inescapable sense that the fogs of her consciousness are being pierced by a hurt that's both accumulative and permanent. Paulette means no harm by her petty self-absorption, Cecile none by hers; they have lives to lead, after all. What we glimpse in the course of the film's 75 vivid minutes is not the banality of evil, but its nasty little cousin, the ease of neglect. Pauline's life is simply not valuable enough for either woman to serve as her sister's keeper. At the operetta, Paulette relegates her sister to the dressing room, where she listens through a loudspeaker -- a step removed from the real experience. At Cecile's cramped apartment, the boyfriend complains when Pauline wants to go to sleep on the couch; it will interrupt his TV program. At the dress shop, Paulette warns Pauline to stay out of sight.
At the end of this disturbing, beautifully acted movie, director Debrauwer and co-writer Jacques Boon decline to administer the usual dose of redemption, but they do part with a lean irony. From the beginning, we've supposed that Pauline will wind up in an institution; what we could not have imagined is that her prospects will actually improve a bit even as the curtain comes down on Paulette's. It's a small victory, one Pauline doesn't even grasp, but we can't help feeling that some measure of justice has seeped into a forgotten life.