Eric Rohmer prefaces his new boudoir comedy "Pauline at the Beach" with a maxim ascribed to the 12th-century poet Chre'tien de Troyes: "A wagging tongue bites itself." While Rohmer's plot relies on a misunderstanding that is indeed aggravated by a tongue wagging out of turn, the theme is ultimately better expressed by a casual remark from one of the characters: "No one tolerates other people's choices."
If you've ever been tempted to wonder aloud, "What in the world does he/she see in her/him?," Rohmer's latest low-key parable on the nature and pitfalls of romantic attraction may serve as an entertaining reminder that everyone's infatuations tend to look transparently foolish and unworthy to everyone else.
Opening today at the Key, "Pauline at the Beach" belongs to a new cycle of pictures Rohmer calls "Comedies and Proverbs." Conceptually, it's much sounder than the first example to arrive here, "Le Beau Mariage," which confronted audiences with a heroine whose headstrong behavior in pursuit of an unsuitable, unwilling mate overstepped even generous bounds of credibility. The romantic triangle at the center of "Pauline" remains securely within bounds; it arises from a plausible set of conflicting desires, and it causes a cleverly contrived tangle of misunderstandings.
The setting is Granville on the Brittany coast in late summer. Pauline (Amanda Langlet), an observant, levelheaded and forthright 14-year-old from Paris, has been allowed to accompany her older and definitely not wiser cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle), a glamorpuss fashion designer, on a brief holiday in the weeks before school resumes.
Brooding over an impending divorce, Marion welcomes both distraction and fulfillment in the form of romantic adventure. She encounters a former suitor, Pierre (Pascal Greggory), on the beach, and he's only too happy to find her available, since he's been carrying the torch for years, confused and wounded by her failure to marry him in the first place.
Disappointing him anew, Marion rejects Pierre's overtures; she prefers to fling herself at a contented middle-aged hedonist, Henri (Feodor Atkine). While Marion deludes herself about her new lover, Pierre deludes himself about his flighty beloved, threatening to make himself miserable until Marion comes to her senses and accepts his hopelessly subservient devotion. A forlorn and maddeningly funny reincarnation of the priggish male character who often functions as the repressed, miscalculating protagonist of Rohmer stories, Pierre acquires perhaps more comic pathos than he deserves on the strength of Pascal Greggory's performance.
There's something curiously touching about his utter mulishness on the subject of Marion. The character can say something like "I hate seeing people make themselves miserable" without the slightest hint of ironic self-awareness, because Greggory persuades you that Pierre should know better but somehow refuses to know better where his obsession with Marion is concerned.
The balmy ambience and conversational style that Rohmer uses to explore the sexual urges and vanities beneath the surface of polite social intercourse are not necessarily everyone's notion of droll illumination. Nevertheless, that probing results in a distinctive charm and psychological sagacity on its own modest, disarmingly superficial terms. Like the other Rohmer comedies, "Pauline at the Beach" lends itself to the charge of excessively refined contemplation of a trivial romantic conflict but the charge tends to skip off the assured, smoothly aphoristic texture of the movie without causing the least damage. PAULINE AT THE BEACH
Directed by Eric Rohmer; photography by Nestor Almendros; edited by Cecile Decugis; music by Jean-Louis Valero; produced by Margaret Menegoz for Les Films du Losange and Les Films Ariane. THE CAST Pauline....Amanda Langlet Marion....Arielle Dombasle Pierre....Pascal Greggory Henri....Feodor Atkine Sylvain....Simon de la Brosse Louisette....Rosette