If you are up for watching a wildly twisted French comedy about an irascible and unlikely heroine who takes on drug dealing punks and becomes one of them to support herself, then the lighthearted and not so far-fetched Paulette is for you. The comedy stars the award-winning Bernadette Lafont as the feisty, foul-mouthed pensioner Paulette who cannot live on what she receives from the government and has to survive by her wits as she daily rummages through garbage and the wilted leftovers of Parisian markets to put food and flowers on her table.
Paulette, directed by Jérôme Enrico is a clever, character driven story of redemption and hope. At bottom it appeals across age and cultural lines and affirms that it is never too late to change one’s life for the better, if one is flexible, ingenious, and open to lucky possibilities. The film is written by Jérôme Enrico, whose dialogue rips with humor and brio and whose social commentary is brilliant, hysterical, and trending. Additional writers are Laurie Aubanel, Cyril Rambour, Bianca Olsen, and Jérôme Enrico (scenario). They have expertly and logically crafted a semi-satirical take-off on Breaking Bad with Paulette as the redoubtable cannabis dealing grandmother troubled, assisted, and threatened by “cool,” video-game playing, unemployed multi-cultural youth headed up by the “kingpin of hashish,” Vito (Paco Boublard), and his evil-minded super boss, Taras (Miglen Mirtchev).
The filmmakers make it clear that the drug gang and Paulette, who once knew the finer things, are caught in an untenable position. Without enough resources at their disposal to help them through the dark times, they fall into dealing drugs to survive because the society is unable to supply enough meaningful work or support in an inflationary economy.
After her husband dies, pensioner Paulette devolves from being a successful middle class restaurateur when her restaurant fails and is taken over by immigrants. Paulette spends her days without direction, though she does have a few cronies, women like her, who are economically and socially nearing the bottom rungs of fulfillment and hope. Early in the film she bitterly complains to Francis (dead husband), about her impoverishment and the fact that when she most needs money as the years progress, she won’t have it. From snapshots (film’s introduction), of her marriage and life with Francis, we note that she has experienced the best years with her husband and daughter. After his death, her life blood, contaminated by the stress of scrambling to survive, threatens to drain into an unsustainable and purposeless old age. Even though she has family, she is estranged from her daughter Agnès (Axelle Laffont), because Agnès married a “darkie”cop (Jean-Baptiste Anoumon), and has a “jigaboo” son (Ismaël Dramé is an adorable Leo), epithets which bigoted Paulette “liberally” uses as she insults them to their faces.
Despite the fact she is down on her luck, Paulette’s attitude and substance thrive on sardonic humor and a drole perspective. Added to her traits, she is cunning and bold with a wicked, primordial sense of “getting by.” For example, she uses pepper spray on another woman as they wrestle over discarded market produce. Without remorse she claims her prize while the woman in shock wipes her eyes and laments. Paulette is one, tough, old “broad.”
It is this cunning and sly Paulette who watches the drug dealers flip through wads of cash in the housing project where she lives. This gives her the idea to use her wily street smarts and business acumen from her restaurant days to gain entrance to the criminal drug underground. How she effects this through a series of hilarious, serendipitous circumstances is nothing short of skillful writing. And once she is on board the drug money gravy train after having to jump over hurdles thrown at her by Vito and his thugs, we get to appreciate how Paulette turns around the cultural disadvantage of age to make it a useful tool to avoid suspicion by her cop son-in-law and the other policemen who are trying to end the drug dealing in the housing project.
This is a manipulative granny who learns what to charge and asks for “more of the take.” Her craftiness in fronting off the competition whose product is not as “choice” as hers, reveals that she is putting her experience and slick intellect to great purpose, even giving herself a “new life.” And she relieves her conscience by going to confession and donating drug money proceeds to Father Baptiste (Pascal N’Zonzi) for the church’s new roof (in a very funny scene).
Much of the ironic humor comes from the character’s going head to head with others and from her insulting, carping nature and her quick, edgy wit. However, we cannot help but admire Paulette’s readiness to innovate when the chips are down, to persevere, and to recognize her need to change when her grandson Leo and she confront a scary turning point. Indeed, she has so much room for personal improvement and is amenable to recognizing this, that we can easily identify with her humanity and discount her negative aspects. And if she put cockroaches in the food of the restaurant whose proprietors bought her out? Driven to annoyance and frustration, we might do the same.
The film’s themes are darkly trenchant amidst the ironies, the wildness and the surprising and funny digressions of plot. The characterization of Paulette is expertly drawn. Bernadette Lafont is exceptional in her blunt, insulting, brusqueness. She is poignant and charming in her later transformations as Paulette’s heart softens and she grows wiser and more flexible after the turning point with Leo.
Because of the expansive adventure of meeting people and innovating new ways to get customers and avoid the police, Paulette comes into her own and has a blast with the thrills of successfully dealing hash, pleasing her customers, and living in the moment. It is much more fun than dodging bill collectors and the repo man and lying to the landlord. The irony is not lost on us that as Paulette moves to the dark side, she receives light, love, and happiness. This is an important theme underscored by Enrico: an anti-establishment, anti-mainstream existence can be much more confidence building and empowering than living in the bounds of a hypocritical culture which daily pounds one into the dirt with no hope of deliverance while raising itself up on the backs of the poor and dispossessed.
All the scenarios have elements of stark truthfulness. The setting and the characters show the extent that many of the unforgotten in society are barely treading water economically. Enrico hints at the issues between the immigrant population, hungry to make it in the “foreign” culture, and the resentment and bigotry against them. The current realities of a shrinking middle class, jobless youth, the unemployed and underemployed and the increasing poverty of the elderly are all represented by the characters that people the film. There are no wealthy anywhere. Symbolically this is appropriate, for the poor cannot imagine the life of wealth. The wealthy? They do not know or care about the plight of the poor who are the faceless invisible.
In painting this portrayal of the under classes and working class (trade unionists who Paulette insults), Enrico strikes a cord which will resonate for many viewers. Throughout the film, we are lightly reminded of the fragility of personal economics; those who are employed today may have their hours and benefits cut by employers tempted to increase their profits tomorrow. Jobs may be eliminated completely as is Paulette’s daughter’s. Finally, the psychic and emotional toll exacted from one’s personality, emotions and perspective represents an incredible waste of human talent and energy.
Enrico and filmmakers make Paulette and the unemployed youth the symbols of the poor and disenfranchised. As we see happen to Paulette, pensioners have their property confiscated, cannot pay their rent, and are eventually evicted which nearly happens to her until she begins to deal hash. Whether the depressed conditions are due to inflation and rising costs for food, shelter, utilities, etc. or increased debts because of medical bills, the fact that economics may rule one’s being is a profound theme of the film. The dichotomy between how Paulette used to live and the way she is forced to live is the drum that beats from beginning to end. And her personal devolution is the lynchpin that allows us to accept the notion of an older woman dealing drugs to pay her months of back rent and phone bills, restore her utilities, purchase fresh food, buy a 60 inch HD TV, and pay for a brief get-away to a beautiful seaside resort for her grandchild and friends.
It is at the seaside resort that the contrast between the haves and have-nots, their psychic and emotional well-being, is underscored in particularly poignant scenes. The luxurious resort adjacent to the beach is the antithesis of the slummy, poorly maintained housing project and squalid conditions of Paulette’s apartment. Paulette remarks that she and her husband once could afford to visit and she had forgotten how lovely the area is. Overcome by privation and stress it is no wonder she forgot about paradise. That dealing hashish brings the possibility of paradise back to her, her grandchild, and her friends is a sardonic irony that Enrico, et. al., make the most of. Filmmakers even pack a punch at the current social trends by adding that Paulette’s seaside rental house has since been torn down and developers have signs up notifying tourists of the coming construction of luxury high-rises.
From the turning point onward, Paulette is forced to make drastic but productive changes that are humorous and unexpected. The skillfulness and believability of the acting ensemble lead by Lafont make the improbable plausible. With all cinematic elements working together, Paulette is a terrific film on many levels. It even sports some interesting camera work (check out a few of the one shots). The musical theme is memorable and the arrangements throughout are appropriate to the various shades and tones of Paulette’s experiences, even to the satisfying conclusion. Paulette is a quirky gem.
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1501303074]