This is quite a difficult film for an aged male writer. Paula, the protagonist of Jeune femme (also known as Montparnasse Bienvenüe) is not introduced to us with any background. She’s more or less literally thrown at us, headbutting the door of a Paris apartment, whose resident doesn’t want to let her in. Taken to A&E to have her forehead stitched, she angrily dismisses the doctor on duty, steals a coat and discharges herself. Taking a cat, ‘Muchacha’, which we later discover belongs to the owner of the apartment, she begins a tour of Paris looking for a place to kip and a means of earning money. At this point I was seriously worrying whether I could cope with another 90 minutes of this. I was reminded of a British film from last year, Daphne, also about a 30-something woman, but this time in London. After writing about that film, I decided not to post a review since I didn’t really like the film. In the case of Jeune femme, however, I stuck with Paula and eventually began to warm to her character and by the last third I began to really enjoy the film.
Jeune femme is a first feature for Léonor Serraille who co-wrote the film with Clémence Carré and Bastien Daret, both similarly inexperienced writers for features. Paula is played by Laetitia Dosch who has significantly more experience as a leading actor. I think some of the positives (and perhaps some of the negatives) come from the script and direction. The performance by Dosch is very good but sometimes the plotting becomes quite weak. The basis for the narrative is the idea that Paula, now having broken up with a former partner, is partly looking for the basics – some money, a job, somewhere to live – but also looking to ‘find herself’. The narrative therefore becomes that of the ‘picaresque’ or almost like a road movie set in Paris as she moves from one situation to another. sometimes it feels like a series of sitcom sketches. Eventually we realise that Paula has got to 31 without having gone through many of the experiences of her contemporaries. She’s spent ten years with an older man who was her teacher at first but then used her as his ‘muse’, photographing her and exhibiting his work. This comes home to Paula when she realises that unlike the other young women she meets working at a ‘knicker bar’ in a shopping centre, she has no postgraduate degree to complete and no ambitions for the future.
Female film critics and fans of the film have made connections with the UK TV series Fleabag and the US series Girls as well as films such as the Greta Gerwig starrer Frances Ha. Hannah McGill in Sight and Sound (June 2018) focuses on the central issue when she asks if the emphasis in these types of female narratives on the ‘messiness’ of the central characters’ lives is “feminist or quite the reverse”. Paula is needy but is this to be read as something for others to respond to and to understand as a product of a patriarchal society – or does she instead need a lesson in developing some ‘adult life skills’ and a plan about what to do next? In McGill’s terms, “this is the line along which Jeune femme wobbles in terms of Paula’s neediness”. Part of the problem is that the women Paula meets are either very critical or very forgiving. Only the women workers at the knicker bar talk to her sensibly about practical things. She meets few men and most are abominable. The exception is the security guard at the knicker bar, Ousmane (played by Souleymane Seye Ndiaye – the lead in La pirogue (France-Senegal 2012)). When I reflected on the film it struck me that Paula (and therefore the whole narrative) changes when she meets Ousmane. Ousmane reminded me of similar characters in A Season in France (2017) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (still sadly unreleased in the UK). I hope that African migrants will eventually be treated as just another character with good or bad points. I don’t want to see them typed as ‘noble’ or ‘savage’. I don’t think that Jeune femme falls into that trap but we need more diversity in casting generally. The cat seems to think Ousmane is OK as well and I was relieved to see it being looked after by him. Paula’s initial treatment of the cat certainly didn’t make me warm to her.
Ousmane’s humanity seems to infect everyone, but particularly Paula and as the film moves towards its climactic sequence with the ex-boyfriend it does seem like the narrative will have a conventional resolution. But in the end it doesn’t, seeing the now ‘sorted’ Paula ready to face whatever is coming next. The film has plenty of music, mostly by Julie Roué, but the Gil Evans jazz number ‘Las Vegas Tango’ is particularly significant according to writer-director Léonor Serraille. In the Press Notes she offers some interesting background to the production and the decisions she made along the way. She tells us that initially the script was 140 pages and was then cut down to make the 97 minute film (which might explain the gaps in the plotting). She comments on her use of a clip from Sirk’s Imitation of Life (US 1959) – her relationship with her own mother is important as it is in Sirk’s melodrama – and also comments on the various films and actors’ performances which have inspired her. She makes this interesting statement:
Jeune Femme, which is Montparnasse Bienvenüe’s French title, could have been called ‘Young Women‘ as the entire crew is made up of women: cinematographer, sound engineer, editor, sound editor, production designer, music composer, producer . . .
I’m glad that I did eventually get on board with Paula and her struggle. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it and I hope it is a big success in the UK.