Pauline and Paulette (Flemish/French)

What I like most about “Pauline and Paulette” is that the retarded character is not played for pathos or cheap sympathy, as is usually the case when retarded characters appear in American films. You don’t get the sense that Dora van der Groen, the Belgian actress who plays her, is begging for an Oscar. You get the sense she’s honestly trying to portray a character. It works.

This is a lovely little film, a simple and sweet story that reads like a fable. It is about Pauline (van der Groen), a 60-ish woman who is simple and sweet, too. She is cared for by her patient sister, Martha (Julinne De Bruyn), who knows how to deal with her and does not seem to mind her peculiarities. Martha understands Pauline.

Pauline, though, is fixated on another one of her sisters, Paulette (Ann Petersen). Paulette lives in town, owns a dress shop, and is the top diva at the local amateur operahouse. She tolerates Pauline, sort of, but is embarrassed by her. She would prefer Martha take care of her and keep her out of the shop, and certainly keep her away from the opera.

Then Martha dies. It is sudden, and Pauline does not understand. All she knows is, she hopes she can live with Paulette now.

The fourth sister, the upwardly mobile Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), comes in from Brussels for the funeral and she and Paulette argue over what’s to become of Pauline. Martha’s will stipulates that if Pauline is sent to an institution, only she will get all the money their parents left them. If one of the remaining sisters takes her in, they split it evenly.

Paulette takes Pauline for a while, then tries to pawn her off on Cecile and her unsympathetic French boyfriend (Idwig Stephane). But slowly, Paulette comes to appreciate Pauline’s simplicity — but like I said, it is not the classic Enlightened Retard who comes to the rescue of all humanity and teaches us valuable lessons, like you find in Hollywood films. Van der Groen’s performance is natural and sincere, as is Petersen’s as Paulette.

The plot is threadbare and resembles, in basic terms, movies like “Rain Man” that are familiar to us. Director Lieven Debrauwer, who co-wrote the film with Jaak Boon, is not interested in breaking new ground. His concern is to touch hearts and charm viewers, and he does that well enough indeed.

B+ (1 hr., 14 min.; in Flemish and French, with English subtitles; PG, two profanities.)