Heartfelt and heart-rending perfs make all the difference in “Pauline and Paulette,” a delightfully bittersweet story of three elderly spinster sisters, one of whom has never progressed beyond the mental age of a four-year-old. Frequently funny and always tender towards its likable, indelibly etched characters, pic renders in miniature the pertinent aspects of family obligations that bring tears to eyes and lumps to throats — when they’re not bringing certain protagonists to the end of their already short ropes.
Helmer and co-scripter Lieven Debrauwer, 32, won a Jury Prize at Cannes in 1997 for her short film “Leonie” and shows nothing but sensitivity and talent in this, her feature debut. Never heavy-handed or overbearing, sweetly sentimental pic has arthouse potential, particularly with the matinee crowd.
Pauline (Dora van der Groen), age 66, can’t read, write, tie her own shoes or form complete sentences. Oblivious to her own thwarted development and content with familiar patterns, she lives simply and happily with her sister, Martha (Julienne De Bruyn), in a cottage in a Flemish town between Brussels and the seacoast.
Pauline loves to water flowers and collect photos of blossoms in her scrapbook. Each day, Martha entrusts her with a few banknotes to go to the butcher’s, warning her “not to bother Paulette” on the way. However, Pauline adores her zaftig sister (Ann Petersen), who runs a one-woman fabric boutique when she’s not rehearsing for the local operetta troupe in which she’s sung leads for 30 years. For the doting Pauline, any excuse to drop by and insinuate herself into the life of the tiny shop or collect another scrap of brightly colored gift wrap will do.
Martha dies suddenly, leaving a will that stipulates her estate will be divided in thirds on condition that one of the two remaining sisters takes in Pauline. If neither Paulette nor the slightly younger Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), who lives in a small apartment in Brussels, wish to comply, then the entire inheritance goes to Pauline to live in a special care facility. As Cecile is due to leave on vacation with her French boyfriend, Paulette agrees to take in Pauline as a temporary measure. She’s actually planning to close her shop and retire to the seaside — sans Pauline.
Pic consists of Pauline’s adventures trying to fit in where she’s loved but not exactly wanted. Movie deals beautifully with family friction, the upheavals of death and change, and the gradations of practical difference between an emotional burden, a habitual obligation and acknowledgement of the ties that bind.
As the title siblings, Van der Groen and Petersen, both born in 1927, are excellent. Sweeping classical music and candy-colored production design are emplyed to gently ironic effect.