Film of the week: Jeune femme is a divisive portrait of a flamboyantly chaotic young woman

The heroine of Léonor Serraille’s film comes across, at points, as a vulnerable, deluded individual and at others an enviably free spirit confronting the world’s hypocrisies. Is the trope of female messiness feminist or quite the reverse?

Hannah McGill
Updated:

from our June 2018 issue

Laetitia Dosch as Paula in Jeune femme

Laetitia Dosch as Paula in Jeune femme

The pitfalls and occasional pleasures of rootlessness and self-absorption are anatomised in this portrait of a woman struggling to find her place after a significant break-up. Paula (Laetitia Dosch) spent her twenties with Joachim (Grégoire Monsaingeon), an older, famed photographer who was once her professor, and whose sexy pictures of her contributed to his success. Now 31, replaced in his affections by a younger model, and largely estranged from her family for unspecified reasons, Paula is alone and directionless.

Her reaction to the break-up briefly lands her in psychiatric care, but she discharges herself to wander Paris alone, haunting her ex’s apartment, seeking couches to crash on and freaking out strangers with her socially inappropriate intensity. Joachim’s cat, which Paula saves and then spends the rest of the film neglecting and trying to palm off on other people, becomes an emblem of both her natural warmth and her utter dearth of practical skills or responsibility.

Whether we regard this jeune femme as a vulnerable, deluded individual in need of further medical intervention or as an enviably free spirit confronting the world’s hypocrisies rather depends on which side of her is tilted towards us in any given scene; and whether we read her specific experiences as symptomatic of the general condition of adult femaleness may hinge on how much we deem young women able to take ownership of their own lives. Dosch’s performance, which hits a high pitch of flamboyance in the opening hospital scenes and continues to climb thereafter, is another factor that may divide audience sympathies.

The thirtysomething female at war with the expectation that she should be able to function day to day is an archetype that gained popularity in the 1990s, when characters such as TV’s Ally McBeal and the protagonist of Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary comically laid bare the struggles behind seeming permanently perky, put-together and professional while feeling a mess inside. Lately, the likes of Girls (2012-17), Frances Ha (2012) and Ingrid Goes West (2017) have renewed both the trope itself and the argument over whether its emphasis on female messiness is feminist or quite the reverse. Is the woman whose adult capabilities are a thin veneer over hysteria a rebellious threat to patriarchal expectations, or a perfect product thereof?

Laetitia Dosch in Montparnasse Bienvenue (Jeune Femme)

This is the line along which Jeune femme wobbles in terms of its presentation of Paula’s neediness. She has moments of cheering fierceness – when a creepy would-be suitor pronounces himself “touched” by her unhappy state, she shoots back, “Touch yourself!” and leaves – but for the most part, this 31-year-old is sorely lacking in adult life skills.

Are we to suppose that these skills were actively denied her by her older ex? In this regard, the film is highly pertinent to the conversations about sexual abuse and female disempowerment that have become so widespread and impassioned in the past six months. Do women bear full responsibility for themselves, or are they at a perpetual social disadvantage that makes autonomy impossible? Do intimate heterosexual relationships, even those that are non-violent and ostensibly loving and supportive, inevitably replicate this power imbalance? “You could have taught me things,” Paula tells Joachim, “instead of just taking my photo.” Either way, seemingly, who she turned out to be would have been down to him.

It’s striking that the film characterises male sexual desire itself as somewhat suspect. Joachim’s lust for Paula has done nothing but hobble and infantilise her, and ultimately shows itself as violent and destructive. Other men who want her are presented as annoyances; and her one dependable friend, Ousmane (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), seems to solidify as a credible romantic prospect only when he falls asleep instead of insisting on sex. Sexual attractiveness, meanwhile, is a weird system of faintly ridiculous codes and equipment, symbolised by the elaborate items of underwear – glorying in names such as ‘The Torpedo’ – that Paula finds herself selling when she gets a job at a fancy boutique.

Jeune femme (Montparnasse Bienvenue, 2017)

Paula’s unsuitability for the world of high-end lingerie sales is for the most part played for straightforwardly sitcommy laughs. Her interview for the position sees her present herself as level-headed, calm and obsessively clean and tidy – the exact reverse of what we know her to be – and she almost blows her cover with every hectic stare and needy laugh. The fact that she gets the job is at once testament to her tenacity and potential and to the store’s deluded naivety, for in a film like this we are in the odd position of at once rooting for the protagonist and knowing she’s a nightmare.

But Paula’s successful entrée into the fashion world might also be read as a comment on how instability can be packaged as sexy eccentricity, provided it is presented with a certain visual flair. Just as the highest of high-end couture has a tendency to resemble the haphazard get-ups of society’s least privileged, so Paula, with bird’s-nest hair, daubed make-up and weird outfit, looks good enough to fool the experts. Elsewhere in the film we see her disguise a self-inflicted head wound by sweeping her hair into a 1960s beehive. “Amy Winehouse!” she declares, invoking a woman whose extremes and excesses were a source of edgy intrigue right up until they killed her.

But if the film implicitly wags a disapproving finger at the fetishisation of the needy woman, it’s not above putting its own romantic spin on Paula’s wayward ways. Told that Lila, a child she’s undertaken to nanny, is a handful, Paula enthusiastically replies that she was too, and that “it works out in the end”. We know that it isn’t working out for Paula at all, and the pall of ambiguity that follows her claim is one of the film’s most effectively ambiguous and uncomfortable moments. But when Paula then runs wild with Lila, disregarding instructions and failing to get the child home on time, the film unambiguously portrays the mother as an unimaginative buzzkill for protesting.

Jeune femme (Montparnasse Bienvenue, 2017)

Lila, meanwhile, clings lovingly to her new best friend, placing innocence and good implicitly on Paula’s side. It’s the same vibe when Paula discovers that she’s pregnant, and a doctor gently enquires about the stability of her life. “Stable? What does stable mean?” Paula cries, bouncing around the room. “Stability’s boring!” The doctor responds with beatific, envious admiration. Finally, someone kicking against the tedious practice of checking on a patient’s preparedness for parenthood! The matter of whether or not Paula has terminated her pregnancy, meanwhile, will be delicately fudged.

The film seems disingenuous at these points, and too keen to romanticise Paula’s haywire behaviour. Its eye for the value of unexpected moments of connection between people is acute, however. We see Paula at her most unsettled not when she is treated cruelly or dismissively, but when someone shows her unexpected generosity, as when a young female vet (Agathe Desche) agrees to defer a treatment bill for that darned cat.

And if the film seems indecisive about how funny it wants to be, the observational humour of Léonor Serraille’s script can be dead-on. Every overachieving contemporary to whom one has ever failed to measure up is evoked by the airy CV offered by Lila’s mother, as she shows Paula around her palatial home: “I used to be an accountant; now I’m a dancer.” And Paula executes a highly relatable double take when, on impulsively ducking into a cinema, she finds herself ticketed up for something called Immortal Kingdom: Renaissance 3.

 

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