Pauline at the Beach

07/06/2021

 The Intricacy of People’s Wants

Eric Rohmer understands better than most the geometry of desire; he comprehends well the rules of the game when seduction is a combination of the head and the heart. He has never had much interest in amour fou, the sort of mad passion of Last Tango in ParisBetty BlueNoce Blanche and Breaking the Waves. He is intrigued instead by amour rationel, without quite possessing the cynicism that one finds in Renoir’s La regle du jeu, or the various adaptations of de Laclos’s Dangerous liaisons

Pauline a la plage observes a small group of people at a Brittany coastal town who come into contact with each other. Fifteen-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet) arrives with her older cousin, fashion designer Marion (Arielle Dombasle) already there is Marion’s former lover Pierre, who knows an ethnographer, Henri (Feodor Atkin), who has a house by the beach. There is also Sylvain, a boy around Pauline’s age with whom she becomes entangled, and Louisette (Rosetta) who knows Henri just a little. Pierre still adores Marion even though they haven’t seen each other in five years but Marion becomes instantly attracted to Henri, who can’t resist her beauty even if he is more erotically attracted to Louisette. In a key early scene, the four main characters, Marion, Henri, Pierre and Pauline discuss what they want from love in a scene that simultaneously lays out their beliefs while also making claims about their desires. Of the four, it is only Pauline who has literally no skin in this game - the others are already emotionally involved, desire evident in the way Marion sits perched in her chair knowing that whatever she says will be for the effect it will have on Henri. Sitting near her but never in the same shot is Pierre, increasingly aware that the chemistry between Henri and Marion, sitting opposite from each other, is much more evident than any feeling she may have for him. They are all seated at Henri’s home, and initially we see Henri with his young daughter in his lap, a girl briefly holidaying with Henri before returning to her mother (Henri and his wife are divorced) while Pauline sits behind Henri, observing rather than contributing. Halfway through the scene she goes and sits first by the fireplace and then next to Marion in a gesture that may be protective of the cousin she might feel is falling for Henri’s charms, or to feel a little more included in the discussion. Yet she also looks like she wants to keep her thoughts to herself, an important point that reflects the proverb that opens the film and will reflect upon the ending of it too. When Marion asks, after the others have spoken, if Pauline wants to say anything about love, she initially says: “I don’t feel like it.” 

The others very much do feel like it since they are busy trying to seduce each other no matter how hopeless happen to be Pierre’s chances. As Sylvain says later of Henri “he’s more likely to get her than the other guy.” And indeed by the time of Sylvain’s remarks, Henri and Marion have already slept together — we know because Pauline has seen them in bed, an observation she keeps to herself in keeping faith with the opening proverb which goes “a wagging tongue bites itself”. It is a remark one could put alongside Proust’s claim that “one becomes moral as soon as one is unhappy.” The unhappier Pierre becomes the more inclined his tongue is to wag. It is Pierre who witnesses what he thinks is an assignation between Henri and Louisette when he sees her nude at Henri’s bedroom window and unlike Pauline cannot keep what he sees to himself. It isn’t that he has entirely misconstrued the situation but he has only witnessed it partially and, when he says later to Marion that Henri has slept with candy-seller Louisette, she can say to him that isn’t what happened at all. But then Marion has only partially witnessed events too. She arrives at Henri’s place while he is upstairs in bed with Louisette and Sylvain, who has been watching TV downstairs, sees her arrive. He rushes upstairs to warn him that Marion is there, and Henri pushes Louisette and Sylvain into the bathroom out of the way. Marion comes up the stairs, hears noise from the bathroom, and Henri opens the door and lets the pair of them out, leaving Marion thinking that she has nothing to fear since the assignation was between Sylvain and Louisette, leading to Pierre then telling Pauline that Sylvain isn’t to be trusted since he has been with the candy seller. Pierre’s unhappiness leads him to see what he wants to see: he hates the idea that Marion has fallen for Henri and any evidence that suggests Henri is untrustworthy leads him to feel righteous within his misery. Marion, determined to retain her happiness, accepts that Sylvain would be inclined to have an assignation with another women when he seems clearly interested in Pauline, while Henri has admitted that he doesn’t want to get attached. If Pierre sees what he wants to see to match his moral despair; Marion sees what she wants to see for her contentment. 

It is here that Rohmer’s geometry of desire meets moral purpose. Though the films he made in the early eighties go by the name of Comedies and Proverbs (including The Aviator’s Wife and Le Beau Mariage) we shouldn’t forget that in the late sixties and into the seventies he also made a series called Six Moral Tales (and that included My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee). What consistently interests the director is the erotic thought meeting the moral deed, where the strategies aren’t only out there in the world ready to be negotiated in competition with others, but also in the mind as the individual negotiates with themselves. The degree of that negotiation will depend from one person to the next but we usually find in Rohmer’s films are people living the examined life. One might wonder how deep that examination goes but whether it is Marion announcing that she wants a love that burns or Henri insisting that “the last few years I’ve had affairs, nothing permanent” as he wishes to remain free, “light and movable”, Rohmer’s characters articulate their thoughts even as we might wonder whether the words are retrospective or anticipatory. Marion says, “I’ve never really fallen in love…I let myself be misled by a man who convinced that he loved me and I loved him…but it wasn’t love. It was being faithful.” It isn’t that Marion is lying; more that she seems to be recontextualising her past and imagining her immediate future. It is clear from the first look she offers Henri on the beach in the prior scene that she is strongly attracted, and we can watch too as on the beach she all but nuzzles up to this stranger. As Henri says to Pauline much later in the film, “Marion threw herself at me. She didn’t give me time to desire her.” This burning love she seeks is sitting opposite her in the room when she offers it as her ideal. It is a verbal invitation to match the physical proximity she offered earlier and we aren’t surprised when they end up in bed together within twenty-four hours. She may later express regret when she says she is ashamed of herself, “it never happened so fast before” but it would be wrong to assume that Rohmer is interested in exposing his characters’ hypocrisies. If Marion regrets sleeping so quickly with Henri it rests partly on what she must sense is a strategic error on her part, especially taking into account Henri’s remarks near the end of the film to Pauline. Throwing herself at Henri wasn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing to do, it was more a poor way of hooking Henri. Maybe he would have been un-hookable anyway, and this is exactly what he has claimed from the beginning, but Marion may believe that if she had been more strategic by offering a stricter moral code, she would have been in greater control of the situation. 

People have seen in Marion a shallowness that would be hard to deny. Isabella Trimboli says “with her bulging coral necklace, exuberant hand gestures and fuzzy, blonde blow-out, [Marion] is almost – but not quite – a caricature of a French fashion person.” (Guardian) Pauline Kael goes further: that the “fatuous” Marion is “a self-centred divorcee with an unpleasant tinkle in her voice.” (New Yorker) One needn’t deny the caricatural and the fatuous yet to insist upon them simplifies the perspective the film offers. If Rohmer is so interesting it’s that he creates characters ripe for judgement whom he wishes we don’t too hastily judge. What matters to the characters is how they navigate sensual pleasures within ethical systems, how they insist on the corporeal while no less insisting that it must fit into a broader system of belief. When the key characters sit around in Henri’s living room discussing their notion of love, this is Rohmer’s symposium, with the claims the characters make not offered merely for our ironic amusement as we wait to see their vanities and pretensions exposed, but to see how the theoretical plays out in the world. When Pierre says that he is waiting for a deep and lasting love and that he is willing to live in and on hope, it isn’t that such ideals aren’t valid but that by projecting them onto Marion, and aware that in the moment that he speaks she is far more interested in Henri than in him, makes his tone strident, a hectoring defensiveness that needn’t undermine his general position but doesn’t make it valid in present circumstances. If Henri offers his with such ease is that what he wishes for (a casual assignation) is very likely even if it is with a woman who expects grand passion. He can allow Marion her grand passion, she can burn as much as she likes, but he won’t be the one holding a candle for her once it is over. It will be the other way round. 

Rohmer’s work can seem clumsy to the prejudicial and adroit to anyone that is willing to accept the director isn’t concerned with judging his characters. The best way of understanding this is to comprehend how he uses body language. One may note that many films have what we can call narrative body language, the bodily gestures that are required to convey and move the story along. Films as great and as varied as Rosemary’s BabyThe Parallax View and Fat City have this narrational expression. One can see it when Rosemary and her husband invite the couple next door round for dinner. The specifics of the meal are irrelevant next to the impending threat we sense this couple offer and director Roman Polanski insists on exaggerated performances to hint at the story to come: that they will be behind Rosemary’s baby being the devil’s child. In The Parallax View, when Hume Cronyn’s newspaper editor lays out the takeaway that has just been delivered, his hunger is of no importance: what matters is that we know, through the absence of hunger in the body language, and in the plaintive camera positioning and the shrouded lighting, he will probably soon be dead. Even in Fat City, the most naturalistic of the three, when we watch Stacy Keach at the beginning of the film leave his apartment we are in no doubt about his skid row status and wonder how he will escape from it or succumb still further. This doesn’t mean Rohmer films don’t set in motion stories; our claim is that the body language doesn’t contribute to its pursuance. It is why Rohmer can say about his actors: “I take them as they come. If an actor is static, I’d rather they remained static, and not try to force him to move.” If the actors move around a lot “I am delighted to let them do as they please.” Rohmer adds that, “I don’t like what are called ‘expressive’ gestures. They are not spontaneous. They are theatrical. I prefer meaningless gestures.” (Projections 9) One reason why might be that he wishes to indicate a space between a thought and an action which isn’t quite the same as a calculation. When a character in a film noir or a prison drama keeps a thought to themselves they are usually not keeping a thought from themselves. They want to find a way of getting the money or getting out of prison and the important thing is to know what they want without revealing the fact. But in Rohmer films, people don’t quite know what they want in so categorical a manner. One may claim that Marion wants to sleep with Henri but it isn’t as if what he offers is what she seeks: he wants flings; she wants a deep and lasting love that needs an initial flame. Even that moment when she first sees Henri on the beach contains within it ambivalence even if we might assume it is at the same time clear desire. Taken out of context it looks like it could be fret or familiarity, a lover from the past, or a man who got away. There is a hint of a frown on Marion’s face and certainly a smile that leaves it. 

One reason why Rohmer insists on allowing the actors to bring their own body language to a film rests one senses not on an indifference to rigour (his scripts are usually very deliberate and the six moral tales were published as fiction first) but on the importance of ambiguity. Though Kael says that “there is no danger here of not understanding everything the six are up to” (New Yorker), Kael’s need to assert underestimates the film’s ability to offer a thorough narrative through-line alongside the ambivalences of characterisation. We might not be in any doubt that Marion will start an affair with Henri, just as we are in little doubt that Henri will show a lack of commitment to Marion. What we may be in doubt over though is whether Marion can convince herself that Henri hasn’t cheated with Louisette and how comfortable Henri is about sleeping with another woman when it causes him to lie about it. Henri presents himself as someone who has casual affairs so that his life can remain uncomplicated and there Rohmer shows him getting into a very complicated situation indeed. It isn’t just that he isn’t honest with Marion, it is that his deceitfulness looks like it might ruin the burgeoning love affair between Pauline and Sylvain. He allows Sylvain to take the blame thinking that it will protect Marion but realises when Pauline finds out what was supposed to have happened that he must protect Pauline’s feelings by telling her the truth while making sure Marion doesn’t find about the lie. 

After all, as he says, why have two women in tears if he can just allow one to be upset? But as Sylvain insists, the wrong one is crying. Henri’s predicament is to make Pauline no longer cry without Marion becoming lachrymose. He presents it thus: “I hate making people cry. In fact I’m too nice. It really gets me into trouble.” As he speaks to Sylvain in the garden of his house, the body language is more aggressive than beseeching. He moves in close to Sylvain in a manner that in another context might suggest the threatening, but Henri really does seem to want to convince the teenager that he isn’t a bad person, just as he will near the end of the film, after a clumsy pass on Pauline, insist that he likes women and why not? Watching the film many may understandably see this as the moment where Henri announces his villainy, that his actions are those of a paedophile but the age of consent in France has only recently been set at fifteen and the film doesn't indicate that there would be anything intrinsically wrong with Pierre sleeping with Pauline. Indeed Marion, who we mustn’t forget is Pauline’s older cousin, pushes for this possibility. Someone watching the film could be horrified by Henri waking Pauline up by kissing her legs but that isn’t quite the film’s position. When Pauline kicks him firmly in the chest and he lands on the other side of the room, Henri takes it as the rejection it is and then starts explaining himself. The film presents him as incorrigible but not terrible, a man who can’t resist his impulses but also knows that they are limited by other people’s wishes. If one comes away from the film liking ever so slightly more the priapic Henri over the virtuous Pierre it rests on the film proposing that determining to follow one’s desires is less of a vice than wagging one’s tongue. Henri would wish to hurt people less than Pierre even if Pierre would be willing to do so because he wants people to face the truth. But we might wonder how interested in the truth he happens to be when he cannot even see how futile are his attempts at winning Marion over by telling her how bad he thinks Henri happens to have been. The ambiguity of body language can go some way to reflecting Rohmer’s moral attitude, one that doesn’t wish for ready judgement. 

One way of looking at Rohmer’s work more broadly is to see that it explores existential situations within an impressionist environment. To say that Rohmer is very French doesn’t take us very far but seems an accurate enough appraisal and can perhaps become more accurate still if one sees him within the context of the existential and the impressionist. Choices matter in Rohmer’s work but this isn’t a decision based on gravity but levity, with the potential existential weight contained by a milieu that often suggests inconsequence, evident in the summery interludes not only in Pauline a la plage but also La collectionneuseClaire’s Knee and A Summer’s Tale. Yet Rohmer’s achievement is to give what seems like the inconsequential another type of consequentiality which, while not religious, can invoke the spirit. If Nietzsche says one ought to “live dangerously”, Rohmer might reply that, no, one needs to live carefully — or better still care-freely. Nietzsche proposes an eternal recurrence that gives enormous weight to choice as we should will our act with an awareness of its endless repetition: “this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence.” (The Gay Science) Such a problem arises partly because God is Dead; we are responsible for the choices we make; we cannot credit them to predestination and God’s workings. Such is the burden of responsibility, a point Sartre makes when bringing up the notion that one might say that they didn’t ask to be born. The point is that they were born and then one makes choices on what to do about it. “To make myself passive in the world, to refuse to act upon things and upon Others is still to choose myself, and suicide is one mode among others of being-in-the-world.” (Being and Nothingness) Camus of course made this the core of his thinking: “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” (Myth of Sisyphus) Such is the weight of choice. 

Rohmer would be more inclined to couch choice quite differently: there is no more important a question than where one vacations. Rohmer’s achievement is then to make such an apparently trivial question into a serious one and it is why we propose that the existential meets the impressionist. Nobody would be inclined to think the impressionists superficial as they searched for the light that would best capture the pleasurable. As David Piper says, the Impressionists’, despite left-wing political leanings “…subject matter, however, was most often pleasure or pleasurable — people enjoying themselves, landscapes enjoyable to look at, celebrated in lively high-key colour.” (The Illustrated History of Art) If the fundamental question is whether to live, then the next question once deciding to do so is how to live; what to live by and for, and in turn, how to show why life is worth living, how to capture the light of that life. Van Gogh searched in Arles for the paradox of this problem in “the gravity of great sunlight effects.” (Letters) While art’s purpose for centuries was to express God’s presence then that didn’t mean that in his Nietzschean absence he need completely go away: his presence becomes manifest in the things of the world. As Cezanne said: “When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.” Rohmer doesn’t ask for the weight of God or his absence to be evident in his characters’ notion of choice but that doesn’t mean that the spirit is absent either. “At best,” he says, “art is the revelation, in the universe of the Creator’s hand.” (Realism and the Cinema) Rohmer’s purpose as a filmmaker is to propose not the presence or absence of a higher being but to give to the world we have a surplus that comes from the choices we make and the world as it is. When Rohmer’s cameraman Nestor Almendros talks about filming, it can seem like a variation on Cezanne discussing art. “You have to hurry if you want to see anything. Everything is disappearing.” (Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906: Pioneer of Modernism) Cezanne was talking about the problem of technological progress but for Rohmer and Almendros it is more about technological progress rescuing what we can see. In Almendros’s work what disappears is the light. “I start from realism. My way of lighting and seeing is realistic; I don’t use imagination. I use research. I go to a location and see where the light falls normally and I just try to catch it as it is or reinforce it if it is insufficient.” (Masters of Light) Yet this can create difficulties: “…When you are shooting a very long scene (with natural light) the light is falling a certain way like it’s falling in this room now; but in an hour from now, the light will be falling differently.” You need to use a studio or work very quickly. As Almendros says, “I don’t boast about being good but I boast about being fast.” (Masters of Light) He needs to be to work with natural light that can change so quickly. 

Thus if one invokes impressionism we do so well aware that the painter can hold the image in their mind’s eye while the cameraman is dealing with a constantly fluctuating reality they are expected to record consistently. Yet if Rohmer’s works are often so beautiful and cinematic despite their obvious literary quality, it rests on not at all aping impressionism, not at all making the images painterly invocations of past fine art masters, but in showing that it is far from trivial to concern oneself with capturing the beautiful. It may seem unimportant in the wider scheme of things where people choose to take their holidays but Rohmer and Almendros provocatively propose that it is as important a question as whether or not to take one’s own life. Does van Gogh hold such a fascination over us because few artists more than the Dutch post-Impressionist seemed so completely to hold in conjunction the philosophical and the painterly, the wish to live through the need to paint and where to paint? If the existential question fundamentally is whether to live or to die, the Impressionist question is what to paint, to seek in colour what will keep one alive. As Robert Hughes said of Van Gogh in Province: “…it is as though the calmer color the growing penchant for structuring his work as a process of sequential research into a given motif…had an apotropaic quality for him, keeping at bay the demons of the unconscious” (Nothing if Not Critical)

Rohmer has occasionally made this is a serious question as we find in The Green Ray, where the distraught Delphine keeps going from place to place trying to feel at peace with herself after a break-up as she sees the apotropaic in her constant awareness of superstition. Yet even here Rohmer contains that crisis within the vacational: it is the start of summer when the break up occurs and her friend is going to Greece with her own boyfriend and leaves Delphine unsure what to do, where to go. If Rohmer proposes she will eventually see the light it is one that she can only find by moving around and relying on nature to find it: seeing the green ray of the title, which allows love to reveal itself. More often, though, Rohmer provokes us with the trivial, by suggesting that very little is at stake when people take a holiday, yet containing within that triviality a profundity or maturity that the ostensibly superficial material has revealed. Whether it is Claire’s Knee where the central character becomes preoccupied with touching a young woman’s titular body part as a means by which to justify a hypothesis, or Gaspard getting entangled with three young women in A Summer’s Tale, Rohmer proposes that his films are of little consequence. Yet it might be this very question of consequence that so fascinates: the consequences of the inconsequential; how something that can seem from one perspective of no importance whatsoever can accumulate meaning through those perspectives. Hence the geometry of desire in Pauline a la Plage. The characters may be doing no more than holidaying in Brittany but Rohmer extracts from the vacation the consequences of people speaking their mind when it happens to be their body that is doing the talking (Pierre’s resentment and Marion’s positive disposition towards Henri), or when only a partial view of events has been evidenced (Pierre and Marion failing to grasp events in their entirety). It is here the geometry of desire creates a problematic partial comprehension that will have consequences upon others. 

Though Kael says, “I wish that Henri didn’t have to spell out the limitations of Marion’s physical attraction and explain that he found the fuddlebrained candy girl sexier,” the spelling out seems more Kael’s than Rohmer’s. Instead of seeing the perspectives Rohmer offers, Kael has a habit of insisting that what she sees as obvious is the obviousness of Rohmer and not the obviousness of her criticism. When she reckons that Rohmer is judging Marion on the basis of her backside is this really what the film proposes? “Rohmer tells us what he thinks of her by showing her walking away from the camera in a tight, silver bathing suit that’s squeezing her…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director score points with an audience by treating a mature beauty’s behind as vulgar and a pubescent, undeveloped girl’s behind as the ideal.” (State of the Art) Yet this seems not only a very subjective response but also a pretty poor reading of the film and even the actress Arielle Dombasle’s persona. Mature is surely an exaggeration for an actress who would have been in her late twenties when she made the film and we needn’t speak too much of her attributes except to say that she also worked as a model. If that takes care of things beyond the film, then within it she is presented as an unequivocal beauty. Some viewers may not share that view but this is why we talk of a subjective response; objectively she is beautiful. In other words, the film tells us she is comely. When Sylvain asks who she is, Pauline says my cousin and says isn’t she cute, Sylvain clearly agrees. Henri later says in the speech Kael finds irritating that Marion is so much physically the perfect women “if genetic scientists manipulating chromosomes could create an ideal woman like in Huxley’s Brave New World, I’m sure that woman would look like Marion.” Kael may find that derriere vulgar but that doesn’t mean the film happens to do so as Kael imposes her subjective view over what is an objective fact: that the film finds her beautiful and offers various comments by others to make that clear. The maturity of that beauty, the size of her backside, seems to be Kael's criticism of character as physical manifestation. Rohmer doesn't appear to make the link the often incisive but always tendentious Kael insists upon.

This of course doesn’t mean we might not find Marion vulgar, insensitive, crude and selfish, but we are unlikely to find that judgement in a physical attribute when the film has made great play of her looks. Kael’s point is that Rohmer wants to show his “wisdom’ and uses Dombasle’s bottom to emphasise the purity of Pauline over the paradoxical puerility of the adults: that they are the ones acting like children and thus Rohmer plays up innocent youth over jaded adulthood: “the movie is a daisy chain woven by a prig.” (State of the Art) The critic sees a message that she rejects and imposes an opinion on the film that is contrary to the film’s own. One needn’t assume that there is a correct reading that Kael gets wrong — if it is a question of error it resides in sensibility finally more than fact, but the facts help us to understand what Rohmer's sensibility happens to be. Someone may find Marion’s outfits distasteful, might find the dress she wears at the nightclub they visit hazardously short and the swimming suit too tight, but these are best offered within the judgements of the characters at a given moment of time. When we see Marion in the club we see her moving from a table in the distance towards the dance hall. Pierre stands there watching her and his desirous look is made manifest when he makes a grab for her as she passes, and which she strenuously rejects. A moment later she dances with Henri and that short dress will remain the same but its meaning may have changed, at least for Pierre: it is a dress that is sexy if she is wearing it for Pierre; tasteless if she is wearing it for Henri. We might remember though that it has been worn without much deliberation. They have all met on the beach for the first time that day (though as we have noted Pierre and Marion have known each other in the past); Henri invites them to his for dinner since his house is by the sea, and it is unlikely since Marion and Pauline live three miles out of the town, and up the hill, that they have returned home at any stage before the club. She is more or less wearing the sort of dress one throws on after a swim in the sea. It might be a little too skimpy for the environment but by emphasising both the perceptual (Pierre’s hungry gaze and spurned perspective) and the pragmatics (would it have made sense for them to go home and come back again?), Rohmer doesn’t ask us to judge, he asks us to muse over the permutations of a given moment.

When we talk of the geometry of desire in the director’s work it rests on an awareness that perspective matters. Henri’s point is that Marion’s perfection leaves him adrift in his own desire. “Only a pervert would chase her when he is with a girl like Marion”, Pauline says to him, and Henri may not disagree: “Marion is very beautiful” he says, “she has a perfect body…I admire her but I’m not that attracted, less than by a woman with imperfections.” Those imperfections he can call his own and thus perhaps fetishise them; the perfect allows no such room. There is no suggestion in this moment that Rohmer wishes to say that Henri is talking nonsense even if Pauline doesn’t quite understand what he is saying. And hasn’t he proved himself more than a pervert a few moments earlier by making a pass at his girlfriend’s fifteen-year-old cousin? If there is hypocrisy in Henri’s position as Pauline notes, then there is naivety in Pauline’s inability to comprehend the nature of desire. If Pauline comes out of the film best, it isn’t just that she can keep her counsel (Henri is no less adamant on this point) but that she is the least sexually complicated of the leading characters. If Henri is a fetishist who likes an imperfection he can project upon rather than a beauty he can generally desire, and Pierre a masochist who holds a candle for Marion over the years and is willing to get his fingers burnt all over again, Marion is a narcissist who can’t resist flirtatious gestures even with a man who is in pain over his feelings for her — as we see when Pierre tries to teach her how to surfboard after she has rejected him the night before. 

One may see in Pauline an innocence but only if we accept the flipside of that is a sophistication in the others. Such a claim seems too strong at both ends, but to say Pauline is ignorant as the others are cruel is too strong a claim in another direction. Pauline cannot yet understand the games adults play, the strategies adopted to make attraction possible, but she may soon enough learn. Is this how we should read the ending? A straightforward interpretation can see that Pauline has witnessed the faults and foibles of those older than herself and comes out wiser but no less innocent. Yet at the very end of the film, she lies by omission; when Marion admits that it is possible Henri was with the candy-selling girl, she says that it is possible but too horrible to acknowledge. In turn, she says, it is possible that it was indeed Sylvain who slept with the girl and that this could lead to Pauline feeling upset. Marion reckons the best thing for them to do is assume that since either is a possibility neither need be true and thus both of them can be happy. Yet of course Pauline knows what Marion doesn’t even if she knows less than we the viewers know. Pauline after all witnessed even less than Marion: Marion at least saw Sylvain and Louisette coming out of Henri’s bathroom. Pauline wasn’t there at all and has relied on the various confessions and admissions of others to assume with rightful confidence that it was Henri and not Sylvain who slept with Louisette. Yet despite this confident knowledge she is wary of Sylvain who she sees has colluded with Henri and we might assume that her feelings for him have been weakened by what she sees as his weakness of character. Marion looks like she will start up again with Henri whenever he returns from his excursion on a friend’s boat if they happen to find themselves once again in the same place. Though neither Pauline nor Marion really know what happened, we know that Pauline can say with some confidence that she is not upset while it looks like Marion still happens to be. Moments earlier, before offering the comment that they can both be happy, we have seen Marion bite her nails as she muses over whether to stay by the beach or return to Paris. Her remark to Pauline isn’t there to reassure Pauline, it seems, but to reassure herself. Pauline has no need for such assurances but plays along with Marion’s denial presumably because she wouldn’t wish to hurt Marion. Nevertheless, who would want to be put in a position where you are sitting in a cramped car (it is a Mini) putting one over your cousin as you remain mum? Pauline offers for the first time in the film a forced smile that indicates she is not at ease in what amounts to complicity with Henri over an honest relationship with a relative. If this is the price of growing up, is it worth the cost she might wonder as the geometry of desire leads potentially to alienation from others?

Alienation was a great existential theme: David Leopold reckons “existentialists think of (something like) objective alienation as a permanent feature of all human societies. Rejecting both substantive accounts of essential human nature, and the ethical embrace of social relations that facilitate the development and deployment of those human characteristics, they rather maintain that the social world will always remain ‘other’, can never be a ‘home’” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Is Pauline alienated at the end of Pauline a la Plage? That would surely be an over-interpretation but she may no longer have much faith in speaking her mind when it seems safer to keep one’s thoughts to oneself. Such a position is socially decent but it also creates a chasm between ourselves and others and no amount of sun, sand and sea, for all the impressionist light the film utilises, can quite deny that Pauline has come of age and might not be in the happiest of states — even if Rohmer couches it within the most ostensibly benign of environments. The film ends as it has opened: on the gates of the holiday home Marion and Pauline have been staying in. Rohmer gives the impression that nothing has happened, that we have been witness to no more than a summer interlude, but we have also seen the geometry of desire that suggests adults cannot easily eschew gossip, lies, denial and egotism in pursuing their sexual wants. From a certain perspective this is much ado about nothing; from another angle a nothingness that reveals the intricacy of people’s wants. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Pauline at the Beach

 The Intricacy of People’s Wants

Eric Rohmer understands better than most the geometry of desire; he comprehends well the rules of the game when seduction is a combination of the head and the heart. He has never had much interest in amour fou, the sort of mad passion of Last Tango in Paris, Betty Blue, Noce Blanche and Breaking the Waves. He is intrigued instead by amour rationel, without quite possessing the cynicism that one finds in Renoir's La regle du jeu, or the various adaptations of de Laclos's Dangerous liaisons.

Pauline a la plage observes a small group of people at a Brittany coastal town who come into contact with each other. Fifteen-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet) arrives with her older cousin, fashion designer Marion (Arielle Dombasle) already there is Marion's former lover Pierre, who knows an ethnographer, Henri (Feodor Atkin), who has a house by the beach. There is also Sylvain, a boy around Pauline's age with whom she becomes entangled, and Louisette (Rosetta) who knows Henri just a little. Pierre still adores Marion even though they haven't seen each other in five years but Marion becomes instantly attracted to Henri, who can't resist her beauty even if he is more erotically attracted to Louisette. In a key early scene, the four main characters, Marion, Henri, Pierre and Pauline discuss what they want from love in a scene that simultaneously lays out their beliefs while also making claims about their desires. Of the four, it is only Pauline who has literally no skin in this game - the others are already emotionally involved, desire evident in the way Marion sits perched in her chair knowing that whatever she says will be for the effect it will have on Henri. Sitting near her but never in the same shot is Pierre, increasingly aware that the chemistry between Henri and Marion, sitting opposite from each other, is much more evident than any feeling she may have for him. They are all seated at Henri's home, and initially we see Henri with his young daughter in his lap, a girl briefly holidaying with Henri before returning to her mother (Henri and his wife are divorced) while Pauline sits behind Henri, observing rather than contributing. Halfway through the scene she goes and sits first by the fireplace and then next to Marion in a gesture that may be protective of the cousin she might feel is falling for Henri's charms, or to feel a little more included in the discussion. Yet she also looks like she wants to keep her thoughts to herself, an important point that reflects the proverb that opens the film and will reflect upon the ending of it too. When Marion asks, after the others have spoken, if Pauline wants to say anything about love, she initially says: "I don't feel like it."

The others very much do feel like it since they are busy trying to seduce each other no matter how hopeless happen to be Pierre's chances. As Sylvain says later of Henri "he's more likely to get her than the other guy." And indeed by the time of Sylvain's remarks, Henri and Marion have already slept together we know because Pauline has seen them in bed, an observation she keeps to herself in keeping faith with the opening proverb which goes "a wagging tongue bites itself". It is a remark one could put alongside Proust's claim that "one becomes moral as soon as one is unhappy." The unhappier Pierre becomes the more inclined his tongue is to wag. It is Pierre who witnesses what he thinks is an assignation between Henri and Louisette when he sees her nude at Henri's bedroom window and unlike Pauline cannot keep what he sees to himself. It isn't that he has entirely misconstrued the situation but he has only witnessed it partially and, when he says later to Marion that Henri has slept with candy-seller Louisette, she can say to him that isn't what happened at all. But then Marion has only partially witnessed events too. She arrives at Henri's place while he is upstairs in bed with Louisette and Sylvain, who has been watching TV downstairs, sees her arrive. He rushes upstairs to warn him that Marion is there, and Henri pushes Louisette and Sylvain into the bathroom out of the way. Marion comes up the stairs, hears noise from the bathroom, and Henri opens the door and lets the pair of them out, leaving Marion thinking that she has nothing to fear since the assignation was between Sylvain and Louisette, leading to Pierre then telling Pauline that Sylvain isn't to be trusted since he has been with the candy seller. Pierre's unhappiness leads him to see what he wants to see: he hates the idea that Marion has fallen for Henri and any evidence that suggests Henri is untrustworthy leads him to feel righteous within his misery. Marion, determined to retain her happiness, accepts that Sylvain would be inclined to have an assignation with another women when he seems clearly interested in Pauline, while Henri has admitted that he doesn't want to get attached. If Pierre sees what he wants to see to match his moral despair; Marion sees what she wants to see for her contentment.

It is here that Rohmer's geometry of desire meets moral purpose. Though the films he made in the early eighties go by the name of Comedies and Proverbs (including The Aviator's Wife and Le Beau Mariage) we shouldn't forget that in the late sixties and into the seventies he also made a series called Six Moral Tales (and that included My Night at Maud's and Claire's Knee). What consistently interests the director is the erotic thought meeting the moral deed, where the strategies aren't only out there in the world ready to be negotiated in competition with others, but also in the mind as the individual negotiates with themselves. The degree of that negotiation will depend from one person to the next but we usually find in Rohmer's films are people living the examined life. One might wonder how deep that examination goes but whether it is Marion announcing that she wants a love that burns or Henri insisting that "the last few years I've had affairs, nothing permanent" as he wishes to remain free, "light and movable", Rohmer's characters articulate their thoughts even as we might wonder whether the words are retrospective or anticipatory. Marion says, "I've never really fallen in love...I let myself be misled by a man who convinced that he loved me and I loved him...but it wasn't love. It was being faithful." It isn't that Marion is lying; more that she seems to be recontextualising her past and imagining her immediate future. It is clear from the first look she offers Henri on the beach in the prior scene that she is strongly attracted, and we can watch too as on the beach she all but nuzzles up to this stranger. As Henri says to Pauline much later in the film, "Marion threw herself at me. She didn't give me time to desire her." This burning love she seeks is sitting opposite her in the room when she offers it as her ideal. It is a verbal invitation to match the physical proximity she offered earlier and we aren't surprised when they end up in bed together within twenty-four hours. She may later express regret when she says she is ashamed of herself, "it never happened so fast before" but it would be wrong to assume that Rohmer is interested in exposing his characters' hypocrisies. If Marion regrets sleeping so quickly with Henri it rests partly on what she must sense is a strategic error on her part, especially taking into account Henri's remarks near the end of the film to Pauline. Throwing herself at Henri wasn't necessarily a 'bad' thing to do, it was more a poor way of hooking Henri. Maybe he would have been un-hookable anyway, and this is exactly what he has claimed from the beginning, but Marion may believe that if she had been more strategic by offering a stricter moral code, she would have been in greater control of the situation.

People have seen in Marion a shallowness that would be hard to deny. Isabella Trimboli says "with her bulging coral necklace, exuberant hand gestures and fuzzy, blonde blow-out, [Marion] is almost - but not quite - a caricature of a French fashion person." (Guardian) Pauline Kael goes further: that the "fatuous" Marion is "a self-centred divorcee with an unpleasant tinkle in her voice." (New Yorker) One needn't deny the caricatural and the fatuous yet to insist upon them simplifies the perspective the film offers. If Rohmer is so interesting it's that he creates characters ripe for judgement whom he wishes we don't too hastily judge. What matters to the characters is how they navigate sensual pleasures within ethical systems, how they insist on the corporeal while no less insisting that it must fit into a broader system of belief. When the key characters sit around in Henri's living room discussing their notion of love, this is Rohmer's symposium, with the claims the characters make not offered merely for our ironic amusement as we wait to see their vanities and pretensions exposed, but to see how the theoretical plays out in the world. When Pierre says that he is waiting for a deep and lasting love and that he is willing to live in and on hope, it isn't that such ideals aren't valid but that by projecting them onto Marion, and aware that in the moment that he speaks she is far more interested in Henri than in him, makes his tone strident, a hectoring defensiveness that needn't undermine his general position but doesn't make it valid in present circumstances. If Henri offers his with such ease is that what he wishes for (a casual assignation) is very likely even if it is with a woman who expects grand passion. He can allow Marion her grand passion, she can burn as much as she likes, but he won't be the one holding a candle for her once it is over. It will be the other way round.

Rohmer's work can seem clumsy to the prejudicial and adroit to anyone that is willing to accept the director isn't concerned with judging his characters. The best way of understanding this is to comprehend how he uses body language. One may note that many films have what we can call narrative body language, the bodily gestures that are required to convey and move the story along. Films as great and as varied as Rosemary's Baby, The Parallax View and Fat City have this narrational expression. One can see it when Rosemary and her husband invite the couple next door round for dinner. The specifics of the meal are irrelevant next to the impending threat we sense this couple offer and director Roman Polanski insists on exaggerated performances to hint at the story to come: that they will be behind Rosemary's baby being the devil's child. In The Parallax View, when Hume Cronyn's newspaper editor lays out the takeaway that has just been delivered, his hunger is of no importance: what matters is that we know, through the absence of hunger in the body language, and in the plaintive camera positioning and the shrouded lighting, he will probably soon be dead. Even in Fat City, the most naturalistic of the three, when we watch Stacy Keach at the beginning of the film leave his apartment we are in no doubt about his skid row status and wonder how he will escape from it or succumb still further. This doesn't mean Rohmer films don't set in motion stories; our claim is that the body language doesn't contribute to its pursuance. It is why Rohmer can say about his actors: "I take them as they come. If an actor is static, I'd rather they remained static, and not try to force him to move." If the actors move around a lot "I am delighted to let them do as they please." Rohmer adds that, "I don't like what are called 'expressive' gestures. They are not spontaneous. They are theatrical. I prefer meaningless gestures." (Projections 9) One reason why might be that he wishes to indicate a space between a thought and an action which isn't quite the same as a calculation. When a character in a film noir or a prison drama keeps a thought to themselves they are usually not keeping a thought from themselves. They want to find a way of getting the money or getting out of prison and the important thing is to know what they want without revealing the fact. But in Rohmer films, people don't quite know what they want in so categorical a manner. One may claim that Marion wants to sleep with Henri but it isn't as if what he offers is what she seeks: he wants flings; she wants a deep and lasting love that needs an initial flame. Even that moment when she first sees Henri on the beach contains within it ambivalence even if we might assume it is at the same time clear desire. Taken out of context it looks like it could be fret or familiarity, a lover from the past, or a man who got away. There is a hint of a frown on Marion's face and certainly a smile that leaves it.

One reason why Rohmer insists on allowing the actors to bring their own body language to a film rests one senses not on an indifference to rigour (his scripts are usually very deliberate and the six moral tales were published as fiction first) but on the importance of ambiguity. Though Kael says that "there is no danger here of not understanding everything the six are up to" (New Yorker), Kael's need to assert underestimates the film's ability to offer a thorough narrative through-line alongside the ambivalences of characterisation. We might not be in any doubt that Marion will start an affair with Henri, just as we are in little doubt that Henri will show a lack of commitment to Marion. What we may be in doubt over though is whether Marion can convince herself that Henri hasn't cheated with Louisette and how comfortable Henri is about sleeping with another woman when it causes him to lie about it. Henri presents himself as someone who has casual affairs so that his life can remain uncomplicated and there Rohmer shows him getting into a very complicated situation indeed. It isn't just that he isn't honest with Marion, it is that his deceitfulness looks like it might ruin the burgeoning love affair between Pauline and Sylvain. He allows Sylvain to take the blame thinking that it will protect Marion but realises when Pauline finds out what was supposed to have happened that he must protect Pauline's feelings by telling her the truth while making sure Marion doesn't find about the lie.

After all, as he says, why have two women in tears if he can just allow one to be upset? But as Sylvain insists, the wrong one is crying. Henri's predicament is to make Pauline no longer cry without Marion becoming lachrymose. He presents it thus: "I hate making people cry. In fact I'm too nice. It really gets me into trouble." As he speaks to Sylvain in the garden of his house, the body language is more aggressive than beseeching. He moves in close to Sylvain in a manner that in another context might suggest the threatening, but Henri really does seem to want to convince the teenager that he isn't a bad person, just as he will near the end of the film, after a clumsy pass on Pauline, insist that he likes women and why not? Watching the film many may understandably see this as the moment where Henri announces his villainy, that his actions are those of a paedophile but the age of consent in France has only recently been set at fifteen and the film doesn't indicate that there would be anything intrinsically wrong with Pierre sleeping with Pauline. Indeed Marion, who we mustn't forget is Pauline's older cousin, pushes for this possibility. Someone watching the film could be horrified by Henri waking Pauline up by kissing her legs but that isn't quite the film's position. When Pauline kicks him firmly in the chest and he lands on the other side of the room, Henri takes it as the rejection it is and then starts explaining himself. The film presents him as incorrigible but not terrible, a man who can't resist his impulses but also knows that they are limited by other people's wishes. If one comes away from the film liking ever so slightly more the priapic Henri over the virtuous Pierre it rests on the film proposing that determining to follow one's desires is less of a vice than wagging one's tongue. Henri would wish to hurt people less than Pierre even if Pierre would be willing to do so because he wants people to face the truth. But we might wonder how interested in the truth he happens to be when he cannot even see how futile are his attempts at winning Marion over by telling her how bad he thinks Henri happens to have been. The ambiguity of body language can go some way to reflecting Rohmer's moral attitude, one that doesn't wish for ready judgement.

One way of looking at Rohmer's work more broadly is to see that it explores existential situations within an impressionist environment. To say that Rohmer is very French doesn't take us very far but seems an accurate enough appraisal and can perhaps become more accurate still if one sees him within the context of the existential and the impressionist. Choices matter in Rohmer's work but this isn't a decision based on gravity but levity, with the potential existential weight contained by a milieu that often suggests inconsequence, evident in the summery interludes not only in Pauline a la plage but also La collectionneuse, Claire's Knee and A Summer's Tale. Yet Rohmer's achievement is to give what seems like the inconsequential another type of consequentiality which, while not religious, can invoke the spirit. If Nietzsche says one ought to "live dangerously", Rohmer might reply that, no, one needs to live carefully or better still care-freely. Nietzsche proposes an eternal recurrence that gives enormous weight to choice as we should will our act with an awareness of its endless repetition: "this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence." (The Gay Science) Such a problem arises partly because God is Dead; we are responsible for the choices we make; we cannot credit them to predestination and God's workings. Such is the burden of responsibility, a point Sartre makes when bringing up the notion that one might say that they didn't ask to be born. The point is that they were born and then one makes choices on what to do about it. "To make myself passive in the world, to refuse to act upon things and upon Others is still to choose myself, and suicide is one mode among others of being-in-the-world." (Being and Nothingness) Camus of course made this the core of his thinking: "there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." (Myth of Sisyphus) Such is the weight of choice.

Rohmer would be more inclined to couch choice quite differently: there is no more important a question than where one vacations. Rohmer's achievement is then to make such an apparently trivial question into a serious one and it is why we propose that the existential meets the impressionist. Nobody would be inclined to think the impressionists superficial as they searched for the light that would best capture the pleasurable. As David Piper says, the Impressionists', despite left-wing political leanings "...subject matter, however, was most often pleasure or pleasurable people enjoying themselves, landscapes enjoyable to look at, celebrated in lively high-key colour." (The Illustrated History of Art) If the fundamental question is whether to live, then the next question once deciding to do so is how to live; what to live by and for, and in turn, how to show why life is worth living, how to capture the light of that life. Van Gogh searched in Arles for the paradox of this problem in "the gravity of great sunlight effects." (Letters) While art's purpose for centuries was to express God's presence then that didn't mean that in his Nietzschean absence he need completely go away: his presence becomes manifest in the things of the world. As Cezanne said: "When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art." Rohmer doesn't ask for the weight of God or his absence to be evident in his characters' notion of choice but that doesn't mean that the spirit is absent either. "At best," he says, "art is the revelation, in the universe of the Creator's hand." (Realism and the Cinema) Rohmer's purpose as a filmmaker is to propose not the presence or absence of a higher being but to give to the world we have a surplus that comes from the choices we make and the world as it is. When Rohmer's cameraman Nestor Almendros talks about filming, it can seem like a variation on Cezanne discussing art. "You have to hurry if you want to see anything. Everything is disappearing." (Paul Czanne, 1839-1906: Pioneer of Modernism) Cezanne was talking about the problem of technological progress but for Rohmer and Almendros it is more about technological progress rescuing what we can see. In Almendros's work what disappears is the light. "I start from realism. My way of lighting and seeing is realistic; I don't use imagination. I use research. I go to a location and see where the light falls normally and I just try to catch it as it is or reinforce it if it is insufficient." (Masters of Light) Yet this can create difficulties: "...When you are shooting a very long scene (with natural light) the light is falling a certain way like it's falling in this room now; but in an hour from now, the light will be falling differently." You need to use a studio or work very quickly. As Almendros says, "I don't boast about being good but I boast about being fast." (Masters of Light) He needs to be to work with natural light that can change so quickly.

Thus if one invokes impressionism we do so well aware that the painter can hold the image in their mind's eye while the cameraman is dealing with a constantly fluctuating reality they are expected to record consistently. Yet if Rohmer's works are often so beautiful and cinematic despite their obvious literary quality, it rests on not at all aping impressionism, not at all making the images painterly invocations of past fine art masters, but in showing that it is far from trivial to concern oneself with capturing the beautiful. It may seem unimportant in the wider scheme of things where people choose to take their holidays but Rohmer and Almendros provocatively propose that it is as important a question as whether or not to take one's own life. Does van Gogh hold such a fascination over us because few artists more than the Dutch post-Impressionist seemed so completely to hold in conjunction the philosophical and the painterly, the wish to live through the need to paint and where to paint? If the existential question fundamentally is whether to live or to die, the Impressionist question is what to paint, to seek in colour what will keep one alive. As Robert Hughes said of Van Gogh in Province: "...it is as though the calmer color the growing penchant for structuring his work as a process of sequential research into a given motif...had an apotropaic quality for him, keeping at bay the demons of the unconscious" (Nothing if Not Critical)

Rohmer has occasionally made this is a serious question as we find in The Green Ray, where the distraught Delphine keeps going from place to place trying to feel at peace with herself after a break-up as she sees the apotropaic in her constant awareness of superstition. Yet even here Rohmer contains that crisis within the vacational: it is the start of summer when the break up occurs and her friend is going to Greece with her own boyfriend and leaves Delphine unsure what to do, where to go. If Rohmer proposes she will eventually see the light it is one that she can only find by moving around and relying on nature to find it: seeing the green ray of the title, which allows love to reveal itself. More often, though, Rohmer provokes us with the trivial, by suggesting that very little is at stake when people take a holiday, yet containing within that triviality a profundity or maturity that the ostensibly superficial material has revealed. Whether it is Claire's Knee where the central character becomes preoccupied with touching a young woman's titular body part as a means by which to justify a hypothesis, or Gaspard getting entangled with three young women in A Summer's Tale, Rohmer proposes that his films are of little consequence. Yet it might be this very question of consequence that so fascinates: the consequences of the inconsequential; how something that can seem from one perspective of no importance whatsoever can accumulate meaning through those perspectives. Hence the geometry of desire in Pauline a la Plage. The characters may be doing no more than holidaying in Brittany but Rohmer extracts from the vacation the consequences of people speaking their mind when it happens to be their body that is doing the talking (Pierre's resentment and Marion's positive disposition towards Henri), or when only a partial view of events has been evidenced (Pierre and Marion failing to grasp events in their entirety). It is here the geometry of desire creates a problematic partial comprehension that will have consequences upon others.

Though Kael says, "I wish that Henri didn't have to spell out the limitations of Marion's physical attraction and explain that he found the fuddlebrained candy girl sexier," the spelling out seems more Kael's than Rohmer's. Instead of seeing the perspectives Rohmer offers, Kael has a habit of insisting that what she sees as obvious is the obviousness of Rohmer and not the obviousness of her criticism. When she reckons that Rohmer is judging Marion on the basis of her backside is this really what the film proposes? "Rohmer tells us what he thinks of her by showing her walking away from the camera in a tight, silver bathing suit that's squeezing her...I don't think I've ever seen a director score points with an audience by treating a mature beauty's behind as vulgar and a pubescent, undeveloped girl's behind as the ideal." (State of the Art) Yet this seems not only a very subjective response but also a pretty poor reading of the film and even the actress Arielle Dombasle's persona. Mature is surely an exaggeration for an actress who would have been in her late twenties when she made the film and we needn't speak too much of her attributes except to say that she also worked as a model. If that takes care of things beyond the film, then within it she is presented as an unequivocal beauty. Some viewers may not share that view but this is why we talk of a subjective response; objectively she is beautiful. In other words, the film tells us she is comely. When Sylvain asks who she is, Pauline says my cousin and says isn't she cute, Sylvain clearly agrees. Henri later says in the speech Kael finds irritating that Marion is so much physically the perfect women "if genetic scientists manipulating chromosomes could create an ideal woman like in Huxley's Brave New World, I'm sure that woman would look like Marion." Kael may find that derriere vulgar but that doesn't mean the film happens to do so as Kael imposes her subjective view over what is an objective fact: that the film finds her beautiful and offers various comments by others to make that clear. The maturity of that beauty, the size of her backside, seems to be Kael's criticism of character as physical manifestation. Rohmer doesn't appear to make the link the often incisive but always tendentious Kael insists upon.

This of course doesn't mean we might not find Marion vulgar, insensitive, crude and selfish, but we are unlikely to find that judgement in a physical attribute when the film has made great play of her looks. Kael's point is that Rohmer wants to show his "wisdom' and uses Dombasle's bottom to emphasise the purity of Pauline over the paradoxical puerility of the adults: that they are the ones acting like children and thus Rohmer plays up innocent youth over jaded adulthood: "the movie is a daisy chain woven by a prig." (State of the Art) The critic sees a message that she rejects and imposes an opinion on the film that is contrary to the film's own. One needn't assume that there is a correct reading that Kael gets wrong if it is a question of error it resides in sensibility finally more than fact, but the facts help us to understand what Rohmer's sensibility happens to be. Someone may find Marion's outfits distasteful, might find the dress she wears at the nightclub they visit hazardously short and the swimming suit too tight, but these are best offered within the judgements of the characters at a given moment of time. When we see Marion in the club we see her moving from a table in the distance towards the dance hall. Pierre stands there watching her and his desirous look is made manifest when he makes a grab for her as she passes, and which she strenuously rejects. A moment later she dances with Henri and that short dress will remain the same but its meaning may have changed, at least for Pierre: it is a dress that is sexy if she is wearing it for Pierre; tasteless if she is wearing it for Henri. We might remember though that it has been worn without much deliberation. They have all met on the beach for the first time that day (though as we have noted Pierre and Marion have known each other in the past); Henri invites them to his for dinner since his house is by the sea, and it is unlikely since Marion and Pauline live three miles out of the town, and up the hill, that they have returned home at any stage before the club. She is more or less wearing the sort of dress one throws on after a swim in the sea. It might be a little too skimpy for the environment but by emphasising both the perceptual (Pierre's hungry gaze and spurned perspective) and the pragmatics (would it have made sense for them to go home and come back again?), Rohmer doesn't ask us to judge, he asks us to muse over the permutations of a given moment.

When we talk of the geometry of desire in the director's work it rests on an awareness that perspective matters. Henri's point is that Marion's perfection leaves him adrift in his own desire. "Only a pervert would chase her when he is with a girl like Marion", Pauline says to him, and Henri may not disagree: "Marion is very beautiful" he says, "she has a perfect body...I admire her but I'm not that attracted, less than by a woman with imperfections." Those imperfections he can call his own and thus perhaps fetishise them; the perfect allows no such room. There is no suggestion in this moment that Rohmer wishes to say that Henri is talking nonsense even if Pauline doesn't quite understand what he is saying. And hasn't he proved himself more than a pervert a few moments earlier by making a pass at his girlfriend's fifteen-year-old cousin? If there is hypocrisy in Henri's position as Pauline notes, then there is naivety in Pauline's inability to comprehend the nature of desire. If Pauline comes out of the film best, it isn't just that she can keep her counsel (Henri is no less adamant on this point) but that she is the least sexually complicated of the leading characters. If Henri is a fetishist who likes an imperfection he can project upon rather than a beauty he can generally desire, and Pierre a masochist who holds a candle for Marion over the years and is willing to get his fingers burnt all over again, Marion is a narcissist who can't resist flirtatious gestures even with a man who is in pain over his feelings for her as we see when Pierre tries to teach her how to surfboard after she has rejected him the night before.

One may see in Pauline an innocence but only if we accept the flipside of that is a sophistication in the others. Such a claim seems too strong at both ends, but to say Pauline is ignorant as the others are cruel is too strong a claim in another direction. Pauline cannot yet understand the games adults play, the strategies adopted to make attraction possible, but she may soon enough learn. Is this how we should read the ending? A straightforward interpretation can see that Pauline has witnessed the faults and foibles of those older than herself and comes out wiser but no less innocent. Yet at the very end of the film, she lies by omission; when Marion admits that it is possible Henri was with the candy-selling girl, she says that it is possible but too horrible to acknowledge. In turn, she says, it is possible that it was indeed Sylvain who slept with the girl and that this could lead to Pauline feeling upset. Marion reckons the best thing for them to do is assume that since either is a possibility neither need be true and thus both of them can be happy. Yet of course Pauline knows what Marion doesn't even if she knows less than we the viewers know. Pauline after all witnessed even less than Marion: Marion at least saw Sylvain and Louisette coming out of Henri's bathroom. Pauline wasn't there at all and has relied on the various confessions and admissions of others to assume with rightful confidence that it was Henri and not Sylvain who slept with Louisette. Yet despite this confident knowledge she is wary of Sylvain who she sees has colluded with Henri and we might assume that her feelings for him have been weakened by what she sees as his weakness of character. Marion looks like she will start up again with Henri whenever he returns from his excursion on a friend's boat if they happen to find themselves once again in the same place. Though neither Pauline nor Marion really know what happened, we know that Pauline can say with some confidence that she is not upset while it looks like Marion still happens to be. Moments earlier, before offering the comment that they can both be happy, we have seen Marion bite her nails as she muses over whether to stay by the beach or return to Paris. Her remark to Pauline isn't there to reassure Pauline, it seems, but to reassure herself. Pauline has no need for such assurances but plays along with Marion's denial presumably because she wouldn't wish to hurt Marion. Nevertheless, who would want to be put in a position where you are sitting in a cramped car (it is a Mini) putting one over your cousin as you remain mum? Pauline offers for the first time in the film a forced smile that indicates she is not at ease in what amounts to complicity with Henri over an honest relationship with a relative. If this is the price of growing up, is it worth the cost she might wonder as the geometry of desire leads potentially to alienation from others?

Alienation was a great existential theme: David Leopold reckons "existentialists think of (something like) objective alienation as a permanent feature of all human societies. Rejecting both substantive accounts of essential human nature, and the ethical embrace of social relations that facilitate the development and deployment of those human characteristics, they rather maintain that the social world will always remain 'other', can never be a 'home'" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Is Pauline alienated at the end of Pauline a la Plage? That would surely be an over-interpretation but she may no longer have much faith in speaking her mind when it seems safer to keep one's thoughts to oneself. Such a position is socially decent but it also creates a chasm between ourselves and others and no amount of sun, sand and sea, for all the impressionist light the film utilises, can quite deny that Pauline has come of age and might not be in the happiest of states even if Rohmer couches it within the most ostensibly benign of environments. The film ends as it has opened: on the gates of the holiday home Marion and Pauline have been staying in. Rohmer gives the impression that nothing has happened, that we have been witness to no more than a summer interlude, but we have also seen the geometry of desire that suggests adults cannot easily eschew gossip, lies, denial and egotism in pursuing their sexual wants. From a certain perspective this is much ado about nothing; from another angle a nothingness that reveals the intricacy of people's wants.


© Tony McKibbin