I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
When we meet 30ish Parisian Paula, she is banging her head on the door to her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. Literally. Violently. She ends up with a nasty wound on her forehead and a trip to the psych ward… from which she walks away only to head straight back to his building to scream at him via the intercom and then just up at his windows. He is not impressed. (Neither are the neighbors.)
Embodied with rage and fire and a determined, passionate anxiety by the marvelous Laetitia Dosch, Paula is the sort of woman we rarely see onscreen: aimless, abrasive, difficult to like. She’s Greta Gerwig without the kooky charm. But the truly remarkable thing about Jeune Femme is how writer (with Clémence Carré and Bastien Daret) and director Léonor Serraille ever-so-gradually wins us over to Paula’s side. At first the film seems as desultory as Paula herself she wanders the city spitting on it — “I hate Paris, I loathe it”; “it’s a city which doesn’t like people” — and on almost everyone she meets, even those who are kind to her. What the heck is she doing? Where is she going? What does she want? How did a breakup result in her being both homeless and jobless?
Slowly we come to realize that Paula is a woman the likes of whom we have been granted only glimpses of before in pop culture, one who is never allowed to be the heroine of her own story: her ex is a famous photographer, and she was his student and — there it is — had been his muse for the past 10 years; apparently he had been supporting her or, more likely, keeping her in a gilded cage. (The moment in which she is stopped short by seeing an ad in a Metro station for his new exhibition is quietly brutal.) We never learn why he dumped her, but we can guess: She grew up. She ceased being in awe of him. She wanted more out of life.
That’s the shape that this clever, wise movie takes: the mute object of a man’s regard, one molded to his needs, is learning to become herself. (Smartly, he barely appears, and only at the very end of the film.) Paula is not a terrible person; she tries to be heartless, but she can’t pull it off. She just doesn’t know who she is, because she’s never had the room to find out before.
Jeune Femme translates as “young woman,” and it’s a tad ironic: she’s not that young, but she is immature. But she’s figuring it out. And Serraille follows her in a way that is wildly unsentimental, even when the potential for such rears up, yet always hugely empathetic. Winner of the Caméra d’Or award for first-time directors at Cannes last year, this is a terrific debut from a filmmaker to watch.