‘Pauline’ (‘Pauline s’arrache’): Cannes Review

Emilie Brisavoine’s rough-and-tumble documentary casts her own half-sister in a family saga that’s part “Modern Family,” part fairy tale.

French actress Emilie Brisavoine (The Battle of Solferino) turns the camera on her own family, and her younger half-sister in particular, in the often raucous documentary Pauline (Pauline s’arrache). Part of the independent Acid sidebar in Cannes, this rather quixotic nonfiction concoction paints a rough-brushstrokes idea of what family, love and relationships might mean for millennials, though it seems unlikely that many members of the Y generation will see this at once colorful and coarse arthouse feature in any legal manner. However, it could find pockets of admirers at youth-focused and queer festivals and as a potential cult item on VOD and in alternative distribution.

The low-budget film’s loveliest touch is Brisavoine’s decision to cast her own family as modern-day royalty. Not only does it suggest the importance of one’s own clan over all others but it also plays nicely into the idea of an excessively entitled generation that’s obsessed with itself. Already in the film’s opening, child-like black-and-white drawings are used in conjunction with a voice-over to explain how Emilie’s parents, the “king and queen,” had several children, including “Princess Emilie,” and how Queen Meaud later got together with another king. This second sovereign, a gay man, fathered three children with her: the princesses Pauline and Anais and prince Guillaume, Emilie’s three younger half-siblings.

The Bottom Line

A shouty but affectionate look at a French family

Wielding her low-definition camera, Brisavoine simply records what happens inside the family home, with the story really getting underway when Anais goes to live with Grandma “in another kingdom” and Pauline is the only child of the mother’s second family to still live in the “palace” with her parents. The royal abode turns out to be a cramped apartment in a rather ordinary highrise, though Meaud, her wardrobe a vision of animal prints and eccentric hats, has decked out the few square meters of her realm in hot pink and colorful bric-a-brac (the kitchen in particular looks like it was designed by some kind of unholy alliance between Hello Kitty and Swiss-Alps heroine Heidi).

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In this fanciful rearrangement of family history, Pauline’s musician boyfriend is of course a “minstrel” (real name: Abel) and if the film is anything to go by, Pauline and her lanky beau love communicate their affection in serious shouting matches. Perhaps this isn’t all that surprising, since the protagonist’s parents seem to express their fondness for each other in much the same way, though this is more inferred than actually shown. Throughout, there’s a sense that Brisavoine stays close to Pauline’s perspective not only because she wants to say something about her own generation, but also because there’s a certain innate respect for her mother and her privacy.

Indeed, nothing explains the generation gap between Pauline and Meaud as much as the fact that the latter complains several times on-camera that shooting her life is intrusive and she finds it hard to get used to being filmed, while Pauline not only says nothing about it but actually seems to find it entirely normal that someone wants to capture her mostly rather mundane routines 24/7.

Despite fact the director stays close to the title character, the film isn’t directly about her personality. That would be hard, since as a youngster she still seems to be trying on different personas for size and doesn’t seem ready yet to settle for just one. A scene in which she describes how different kitchen utensils could be applied to Abel’s genitals — not for pleasure, mind you — is hilariously vindictive but also feels out of character, or at least greatly exaggerated because Pauline knows she has an audience if Emilie ever manages to get her film made.

But Pauline does offer some fascinating glimpses of the family dynamics of this decidedly 21st-century crew. The film never dwells, for example, on Emilie’s father’s sexual orientation (he describes himself as “gay except for his attraction for Meaud”), and his habit of cross-dressing is simply a part of the way this family celebrates important events (some blocky VHS-like footage from the kids’ younger years suggests this has been their modus operandi for years). There’s also no direct comment on the fact there are different fathers for some of the kids, finally turning the film into a celebration of what a French modern family might look like today.

Brisavoine handled camera duties and she’s clearly not a professional cinematographer, with shaky framing and no extra lighting making a lot of the material very dark and of just-passable quality. However, given that most of the intended audience will probably see it on small screens anyway, this isn’t really a problem.

Production company: Bathysphere
Writer-Director: Emilie Brisavoine
Producer: Nicholas Anthome
Director of photography: Emilie Brisavoine
Editor: Karen Benainous
No rating, 88 minutes