Pauline et François is an airy, meditative drama built on fresh, chilly breezes and scaled perfectly to the human soul. Filmed in the sparsely populated Limousin region southwest of Paris - an area more famous for its cattle than its sophistication - the film captures the casual gentleness of human interaction and the hypnotic – at times disturbing - quietness of country life. Pauline et François is like a family scrapbook of intriguing moments; some small, some cathartic, over the course of a few months. Writer/director Renaud Fely, making his feature debut, carefully blends these seemingly unremarkable elements into a rich portrait that paints everyday life in subtly heroic hues.
Laura Smet plays Pauline, a young widow from Paris who comes to Limousin to take a new job at a bank. She rents a farmhouse on a crumbling agrarian compound owned by the family of her coworker Catherine (Lea Drucker). Catherine’s hunky but sensitive brother François (Yannick Renier), a roofing contractor, lives across the way in a converted barn and the pair strike up a friendship laced with unspoken sexual tension. From this fascinating springboard, the story branches out to encompass the lives of François’ family and the tragic childhood event that forged a long standing dynamic based on deception.
The film’s scenes of rural life evoke the gray, windswept notes of Andrew Wyeth, reinforcing the story’s undercurrents of remorse. But Fely stages scenes of such catatonic realism the film often feels like a documentary, yet each conversation and interaction is perfectly timed with nary a wasted word or motion. He avoids any cinema verite artiness, favoring instead a simple presentation that scores with superb pacing and tonality. Smet, taking a break from her portfolio of home-wreckers, does a fine job as a woman with deep pain beginning to find her balance again while Renier emits such earnest conviction he appears ready to take his place among France’s top leading men.
Pauline et François contains little in the way of emotive revelations or garment rending histrionics. Its dramatic climax, if one can call it that, is a relatively minor moment of moral weakness that’s quickly discovered and rectified. The film is neither artfully minimal nor flashily intense. But it is a haunting and compelling construction, built only with the most rudimentary of filmmaking tools. And Fely’s honest labor rewards his viewers with a memorable perspective of one family’s drift down the meandering river of time.