Dir: Lieven Debrauwer. Belgium/France/Netherlands. 2001. 78mins

A bittersweet little heart-warmer on the ties that bind four sisters, Pauline & Paulette marks a promising feature debut from writer-director Lieven Debrauwer who won the Prize Du Jury at Cannes in 1997 for his short film Leonie. Lightly humorous and quietly perceptive as it explores the boundaries of family obligations, it is a gentle crowd-pleaser that should register with older audiences who can most particularly relate to the central characters and their dilemmas. A slim running time and an older demographic suggest very limited theatrical prospects but Debrauwer is clearly a filmmaker to watch and Pauline & Paulette will be a welcome addition to any festival director's programme. Its acquisition here by Sony Pictures Classics only underlines its exportable appeal.

Described as a little girl of 66 years old, Pauline (Van Der Groen) is the problem child for her sisters. Mentally retarded, she requires help with everything from cutting up her food to tying her shoe-laces but seems to live quite contentedly with her sister Martha (Julienne De Bruyn) in a country cottage not far from Brussels. She may love and appreciate Martha, but she absolutely adores her sister Paulette (Petersen) who owns a dress shop and is a leading light in the local operetta society. A further sister Cecile (Bergmans) is a distant, infrequent visitor.

When Martha dies, her will divides the estate between the three remaining sisters as long as Pauline lives with one of them. Failing that, the estate goes to Pauline to pay for her new life in an institution. Neither Paulette or Cecile are prepared to accept the full-time responsibility for Pauline and the film shows the way her inappropriate public behaviour can embarrass and frustrate those unwilling to make allowances for her. As the lives of the sisters change, it eventually becomes apparent that despite her exasperation, the lonely Paulette needs Pauline just as much as the other way round.

Executed with a light touch, the film finds a good deal of innocent merriment in Pauline's behaviour but never exploits the character for cheap laughs. When she stumbles on to a theatre stage mid-performance asking Paulette to tie her shoes or displaces Cecile's boyfriend from her bed, she is equally amused by her behaviour or oblivious to the consequences. He stresses what connects all of us to Pauline rather than what sets us apart from her.

There are no heroes or villains in Debrauwer's vision of the world, just flawed individuals who can be selfish in their actions but generally strive to do the right thing. Cecile may have decided to make a life of her own but she does make an effort to accommodate Pauline into her world. Paulette may want her own little apartment by the seaside, but she will be honest enough to admit how much she misses Pauline's demanding company and unconditional love.

The warmth of Debrauwer's approach is reflected in a colour scheme that revels in the bright reds and shocking pinks of Paulette's home and in Pauline's love of the flowers that she constantly waters in the garden and collects in her scrapbook. Sweet and sentimental, the film never oversteps the mark by tugging at the heartstrings or begging for our affection. The emotions arise naturally from the situation and from the very fine, entirely credible performances by both Dora van der Groen and Ann Petersen as the title duo. A rather abrupt ending curtails the already modest running time meaning this is one of the rare Cannes 2001 films that may leave you wanting more.

Prod Co K-Line

Int'l sales TF1 International

Prod Dominique Janne

Exec prod Nadine Borreman

Scr Lieven Debrauwer, Jacques Boon

Cinematography Michel Van Laer

Prod Des Hilde Duyck

Ed Philippe Ravoet

Music Frederic Devreese

Sound Willem Van Nieuwenhuyzen

Main cast Dora Van Der Groen, Ann Petersen, Rosemarie Bergmans.