Paulette (2013): Written by Laurie Aubanel, Jerome Enrico, Bianca Olsen, and Cyril Rambour. Directed by Jerome Enrico. Starring: Bernadette Lafont, Carmen Maura, Dominique Lavanant, Andre Penvern, and Ismael Drame. Running Time: 87 Minutes.
Rating: 3/4 Stars
Do you recall those ads about not judging by appearance? Where they show you the photo of a seemingly sweet old grandma before telling you that Granny was arrested for selling drugs? Apparently someone saw one of those and thought to themselves, “Now THAT is the stuff of screwball comedy legend!” While, sad to say, this movie never approaches the realm of legend, Paulette does have enough wit and clever visual gagery to earn its screwball cred, despite a story that ends up being a touch too airy for its own good.
Paulette is a hilariously racist old widower, feeling increasingly angry and bitter at the modern, multi-ethnic France that surrounds her. Her husband apparently died from alcoholism. Her restaurant has been taken over by a Japanese couple. Her daughter had the gall to marry an African and have a child with him, whom she “zanily” refers to as her “little nigger.” On top of all that, she is now flat out of cash, and has to find food and furniture by rummaging through the garbage. She senses a chance to change her luck, however, when her son-in-law, a police detective, mentions to her the insane profits the drug-dealers he tracks down make. Smelling green (both literally and figuratively), she tracks down a local dealer and slowly worms her way into his trust by selling more dope faster than anyone else under him. Eventually, she stumbles onto the idea of using her skills from her restaurant days to make pastries laced with the drugs. The explosion of success this brings catches the attention of both the “big boss” (read Russian) and her son-in-law detective, setting the stage for some hy-LAIR-eyous third-act hijinks.
My inane sarcasm aside, this movie works very well. Lafont does an excellent job of creating a character that you just love hating, but can still understand. I mean, racism is racism no matter what, but when it’s been a part of someone’s life for so long, it makes sense that it would only slowly dissipate, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their previous assumptions are just plain wrong- her grandchild has to literally save her life before she starts seeing him as something other than black. The rest of the cast is serviceable, but the only other person who manages to make an impression is Paulette’s neighbor across the hall, a widower who is obscenely, almost pathetically, in love with her- in a fantastically cruel twist of fate, for their first date he takes her to the (Japanese) restaurant that ran hers out of business. The rest- the family, her retired friends, the dealers- fill out the screen well enough without giving offense, but this movie could have benefited greatly from a few more memorable side characters.
From a visual standpoint the only thing of note that makes Paulette stand out is its clever use of doorway peepholes. The inherent distortion that they give to the image makes for some excellent gags, including one where the son-in-law trips over the neighbor that we can see, but he can’t. I wish there was more I could offer than that, but from a technical standpoint the movie stays pretty basic. Again, like with the cast, this does not lessen it, but some more creativity with the camerawork/lighting/sets/etc. could have also elevated the movie a bit more above its plot.
I won’t delve into specific spoilers, but I really shouldn’t have to- there are no major twists or turns that take the movie out of the realm of the comedy. Which, in a way, works against it, because a movie about old ladies getting into drug rings should not be nearly as rosy as this movie is. The humor and jokes never stop working, but its refusal to make more than token gestures of seriousness give the film an air of dispassionate detachment. Lafont’s Paulette is witty enough to keep you laughing, but, as I said before, this is the sort of character who is interesting only insofar that it’s a lot of fun hating her. Her bitterness, her racism, and the fact that she is doing all sorts of illegal and dangerous things never make her someone most people could sympathize with. As a result, not only does the movie feel detached, but we, the audience, become detached as well, and thus are less likely to care about what happens.
This is not helped by the fact that there are never any real consequences for her actions. There are a lot of moments where the movie could veer into dark or grim territory, forcing Paulette to really reexamine her priorities in life. If her “conversions” were accompanied or paralleled by the sort of real tragedy that could so easily result from being a drug dealer- the sort of tragedy that actually DOES happen to plenty of real people- then Paulette would be a much more memorable experience. As it is, it’s a fun way to kill an hour and a half, one that won’t tax your brain too hard. It may be fluff, but when it’s funny, it’s really funny.