review by Gianni Truzzi, 10 May 2002
To the growing list of actors
convincingly playing the mentally diminished – Russell Crowe, Sean
Penn and Judi Dench most recently – add 73-year-old Dora van der
Groen. The fact that most filmgoers (including me) have never heard
of this “national treasure” of Belgium only aids in the appreciation
of her affecting portrayal of an elderly retarded woman as genuine
devotion to an actor’s craft. No one is likely to accuse this
obscure veteran of seventy films of Oscar-chasing.
Pauline ages within a life that is as
simple as her mind. She lives with Martha, the eldest of her three
sisters in a Flemish village, where her biggest daily decision is to
choose jam or chocolate spread for her toast. She is drawn
irresistibly to beauty, cuts pictures of flowers for a scrapbook,
and is easily distracted from her errands to the butcher by the
delicate window displays of her sister Paulette’s fussy boutique.
Paulette (Ann Petersen) finds her
sister’s mooning to be an irritation, disrupting her matronly
orderliness and annoying her customers. Yet the two have much in
common. Paulette rules over her shop and frilly apartment like a
perfumed lavender poodle, and commands the village’s operetta as its
grand diva. She surrounds herself with the fragile and the precious,
and bristles at Pauline’s disruptive interest.
When Martha dies, her will demands
that either Paulette or youngest sister Cecile (who lives in
Brussels) care for Pauline to release the estate. First Paulette
tries, then Cecile. It’s clear and no surprise who Pauline prefers.
As the first feature for director
Lieven Debrauwer, it bursts with quality and refreshes by honestly
showing the ugly distaste many display when confronted with the
special needs of another. The butcher’s wife is only minimally
patient with Pauline as a customer, and seldom conceals her disdain.
Cecile’s French boyfriend, while otherwise charming, feels no
compunction about displaying his resentment of Pauline’s intrusion
into their carefully constructed routine. Pauline’s neediness is
unrelenting, unable to tie her own shoes, spread her own jam or
remember her instructions reliably. As offenses, they are mild, yet
we sympathize with Paulette’s desire to get on with her own
In this touching story of two
sisters learning to accommodate each other late in life, Debrauwer
consistently conveys the essence of being firmly settled. One senses
a larger metaphor looming, one for Belgium itself, smug in its
European elegance and comfort. The festival of flowers that Cecile
and Pauline enjoy in the Brussels square is a model of Flemish
orderliness: beautiful, methodical and remote. The film’s nagging
limit is that it never acknowledges such a theme, preferring its own
feel-good warmth, and consequently feeling like it hasn’t got much
Such confinement might, to an
intellectual viewer, be as frustrating as trying to help someone
like Pauline. Yet, after the award-conscious earnestness of so many
Hollywood attempts, van der Groen’s unflinching and authentic
performance is also a welcome relief.
Dora van der Groen
Julienne De Bruyn
PG-13 - Parents
material may be
children under 13.