Sixty-year old Martha DeClerq cares for her mentally disabled sister, Pauline (Dora van der Groen), in a small town between Brussels and the seaside. Pauline cannot feed herself, tie her shoes, or speak in full sentences; she is stubborn, loving, occasionally mischievous, and particularly devoted to her sister, Paulette (Ann Petersen), who owns a small, tidy shop in town. Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), the youngest sister, lives in Brussels with a French intellectual, Albert, and has little contact with her siblings.

When Martha dies, her will stipulates that her estate be split equally between the three sisters, only if Paulette and Cecile care for Pauline themselves. They agree to share Pauline’s care. Although the sisters are fond of Pauline, their relationship with her is awkward and tentative. Initially, Paulette brings Pauline home, and they negotiate the new living arrangements with a mixture of embarrassment and kindness, frustration and delight. When the burden of caring for her sister becomes overwhelming, Pauline is deposited in Brussels at Cecile’s tiny, meticulously kept apartment. When these arrangements become unworkable, Pauline is eventually institutionalized.


This is a sensitive and occasionally humorous depiction of the complex relationships between a severely disabled adult family member and her family that avoids sentimentalizing or stereotyping. Paulette and Cecile struggle to relate to Pauline initially; they speak about Pauline in the third person while she is present; she is difficult to understand verbally and personally. However, the communication and connection between them develops in subtle, unexpected and occasionally profound ways. It would be interesting to compare and critique this superbly acted and executed Belgian film with Hollywood representations of disability and family relationships in films like Rain Man and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (see annotations in this database).


Distributed in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics (2002). In Belgian, with English subtitles. Belgian Plateau Awards for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, Best Film and Best Director. Also for Best Director, Ecumenical Jury’s Special Prize, Cannes Film Festival and Golden Pyramid Prize, Cairo International Film Festival.

Primary Source

Columbia TriStar