Sister act

Dora van der Groen as Pauline, playfully hiding behind a protective scrapbook from “The Perils of … “ in the Belgian film <i>Pauline and Paulette</i>.

Dora van der Groen as Pauline, playfully hiding behind a protective scrapbook from “The Perils of … “ in the Belgian film Pauline and Paulette.

Rated 3.0

A bittersweet, lightly humorous story about the relationship between four elderly Belgian sisters, Pauline and Paulette is a small film with a big heart that nuzzles such issues as old age, isolation, family responsibility, dreams of retirement and physical and mental disability. Hollywood generally washes out the realism of these types of films with Maytag precision, saturates them with melodrama and sentimentality, and tacks on feel-good endings. Here the voice of humanity and, in particular, two lonely siblings retains a natural resonance that is contemplative rather than contrived, affectionate rather than gushing and modest rather than self-important.

Life is initially simple for the mentally and physically challenged Pauline (Dora van der Groen). The child-like senior citizen is loved and cared for by her eldest sister Martha (Julienne De Bruyn). She loves flowers. She joyfully hand-waters colorful clumps of them in the yard and fills an album with their pictures. She has a crippled left hand and needs help tying her shoes and spreading jam on her morning toast. Drawings on the dining room tablecloth mark eating utensil locations for her meals like chalk silhouettes at a crime scene. She has trouble holding a conversation but is a good mimic.

Pauline likes to run errands in town for Martha. “Don’t bother Paulette,” Martha tells her. But visiting sister Paulette (Ann Petersen), who owns a fabric store and is the diva of the small local opera company, is a huge delight in her life. She detours from her meat run to the butcher shop to see her, but Paulette is impatient and frets that Pauline makes her customers uneasy and will drive them away. “You know how embarrassing it is,” she tells Martha.

But Paulette is suddenly left without a caretaker when Martha drops dead. Martha’s will discloses that her estate is to be divided between Pauline, Paulette, and younger sister Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans) on the condition that one of the siblings takes personal care of Pauline. Pauline is to inherit everything if she winds up in a nursing home. The sisters resist the restrictive clause. Paulette is ready to retire to the seaside and wants no encumbrances. Cecile lives in a tiny Brussels apartment with her gruff, starchy French boyfriend (Idwig Stephane) and has only room on her couch and little room in her life for the socially clumsy Pauline. A crisis emerges with no easy solution at hand.

Co-writer and director Lieven Debrauwer based the script on his own vivid childhood memories of two sisters who ran a ladies’ shop together. The memories of the main characters here also play an important part in the story. They evolve as catalysts for resolving Pauline’s supervision needs and as moral guideposts. Debrauwer also did volunteer work in mental institutions to prepare for the film. His observations inspired several scenes and are translated to the screen with authenticity and a genuine sense of tenderness and understanding.

Using a palette of bright colors, he gives the cottage and boutique of both Martha and Paulette fairy-tale-like charm. He draws his characters in various shades of gray rather than developing stereotypically black and white personalities.

Dora van der Groen gets under the skin of Pauline without showboating or leaving the audience feeling manipulated. Her performance captures Pauline’s tenacity and stubbornness as well as vulnerability. Petersen is a revelation of conflict as the plump operetta star who has decorated her home and business in an orgy of reds, pinks and creamy porcelain figurines.

Pauline and Paulette is a rare if lightweight sprinkle of a film. One piece of magic it accomplishes is that it not only shows how people laugh at Pauline but can at times also laugh with her. It is complemented by Strauss and Tchaikovsky waltzes but it is the music in the key of life reflected on the faces of Pauline and Paulette in numerous close-ups that really make this movie dance.