Pauline at the Beach: sex and fraught romance under the hot French sun

A languorous summer greets the teenage protagonist of this bittersweet 1983 film – a perfect entry point to the work of director Éric Rohmer

In the films of late New Wave director Éric Rohmer, the summer holiday is a site for unmet desires, moral crises and inertia. His young, confused creations live in the languorous space where personal ethics slip and loneliness and listlessness are magnified under the hot sun.

With endless leisure time stretching out before them, they stare into the void or entangle themselves in fraught romantic relations – as in the case in his charming yet bittersweet 1983 film Pauline at the Beach (Pauline à la Plage, the third addition to Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs sextet), which is currently streaming on Stan.

It’s the end of summer and 15-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet) has come to a resort town in Normandy to holiday with her older cousin Marion, a fashion designer (Arielle Dombasle, who, with her bulging coral necklace, exuberant hand gestures and fuzzy, blonde blow-out, is almost – but not quite – a caricature of a French fashion person). On the beach, they run into Marion’s old ex, the sharp-jawed, practical Pierre (Pascal Greggory), who in turn bumps into an acquaintance, Henri (Féodor Atkine), a peripatetic (and lecherous) ethnographer.

Together they convene at Henri’s house for dinner and discuss love and romance – the kind of earnest conversation that can only arise out of hurried intimacy. Some lines of inquiry: is love all heat and flash, or can it swell slowly? Does love spring from a chance encounter with a total stranger, or only with someone you know? Is blind faith better than pragmatism? Marion, recently separated from her husband, wants to “burn” with love. “I need rapturous delight!” she cries later in the film. Pierre seeks a dependable partner. Henri wants to remain unmoored, led only by his desires. Pauline, a mostly quiet interloper in these disclosures, is looking for romance that extends beyond a glance with a 17-year-old in a restaurant the previous summer.

Pascal Greggory and Arielle Dombasle in Pauline at the Beach
Pascal Greggory and Arielle Dombasle in the cutting yet kind film. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

“A wagging tongue bites itself” – a loose translation of a quote by 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes – is the proverb that prefaces Pauline at the Beach, where misunderstandings, deceit and self-deception make for lightly farcical ends. Everyone is accused of being in love or infatuated with the wrong person, each slinging choice words about another’s dalliances, which come to involve the town’s ruddy-cheeked sweet-seller and for Pauline, a teenage boy called Sylvain. It’s a cutting yet kind film about how age doesn’t necessitate enlightenment, where the lies of adults collide with the end of childhood innocence.

Outside of these amorous antics, Pauline at the Beach hums with the languidness of summer, punctuated by swims, al fresco breakfasts and the infrequent windsurfing lesson. Rohmer, a devout Catholic, saw cinema as a means to faithfully replicate the beauty of God’s creation. In Pauline at the Beach, this creed results in plenty of understated, seasonal splendour: misty ocean vistas, purple hydrangeas in bloom and metallic bathers that stick to bronzed, salt-sprayed limbs.

Pauline at the Beach is a good place to start with the work of Rohmer. Like most of his films, talk is eloquent and incessant; the subjects are sex, relationships and fidelity. His characters are tormented by indecision, tempted by their desires (often by a type frequently found in his earlier films: the incorrigible but opaque woman), and even his most despondent individuals still cling to a scrap of hope, and perhaps some magical thinking. Pauline, though, is a rare Rohmer heroine – clear-eyed and unwilling to be sucked into the adults’ charade.

“You tell your stories,” Pauline says at the holiday group’s first dinner, as if in premonition of the narratives to be spun. While there might not be much guidance from those “oldies” in her orbit, Pauline does receive a sage lesson about self-delusion. At the trip’s abrupt end, Marion tells Pauline they should convince themselves of contradictory tales about their messy summer romances, in order to assuage their heartbreak. “That way we’ll both be happy,” she asserts, as they drive away.

Pauline at the Beach is streaming in Australia on Stan


Isabella Trimboli

The GuardianTramp

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