Friday 18 May 2018

The messiest mademoiselle: "Jeune Femme"

It's been dubbed the "messy women" subgenre, though perhaps "women" would suffice. (Labellers are such neatfreaks.) Certainly, our movies and TV shows have been working hard of late to expand the definition of how the fairer sex might appear on screen, yielding a run of characters who have arrived unvarnished, deglamorised, rootless and purposeless, all rough edges and sharp corners, and growing more abrasive by the minute. The pushback against the aspirational, Sex & the City-era beauty myth began in the US, with the near-simultaneous emergence of Bridesmaids and Girls; it's already passed through the UK, with the BBC series Fleabag and the indie success Daphne, and now reaches France in the form of Jeune Femme, a Camera d'Or-winning debut from writer-director Léonor Serraille. Serraille's film bears a site-specific kick: in place of the usual well-tailored mademoiselle elegantly stiletto-heeling her way around the boulevards of Paris, we're introduced to une fille who's falling apart at the seams. Aspirational, no; recognisable, yes.

When we first join 31-year-old Paula (Laeticia Dosch), she's literally bashing her brains in: using her head as a battering ram on the door of the flat from which she's just been unceremoniously turfed by her boyfriend. After being sectioned, released back into society, and then stealing off with her ex's cat, Paula finds herself jobless and homeless - spending mere hours on a friend's couch after she pisses off her host - reduced to stumbling around the streets by day and returning to a grotty hotel at night. That her ex is a photographer who's profited from an image of Paula seems significant: our heroine's entire identity appears to have been taken from her overnight, forcing her to start over from scratch. When a contemporary mistakes her for someone else during another aimless ride on the Metro, Paula goes along with it, gaining both a job and a place to stay - but the pretence, the latest bad decision made by a young woman who's both a walking nightmare and someone we know all too well, cannot hold.

Framing the film as plainly and humourlessly as that makes it sound somewhat like the work of that past master of French austerity Maurice Pialat - and positions Paula as a latter-day vagabond - but then Jeune Femme wouldn't be the generational portrait it is without its jagged edges: conversations that don't lead anywhere, a general sense of drift, niggling conflict between Paula and her careerist employer, not to mention unfinished business between our heroine and her mother, that recurring site of feminist inquiry. What makes it a good deal more fun to watch is Dosch's gauche goofiness, her unabashed willingness to talk to plants or carry that (baffled and furious-looking) cat around wherever she goes. Paula is the definition of a hot mess, but she's very easy to pal around with, which leaves us slightly more reassured as to her future: it'd be a cruel director who wanted to punish or condemn her.

Serraille's sensibility is altogether comic and restorative. It's lightly (rather than grimly) ironic that her heroine should find employment in a chichi boutique, selling posh knickers she can't get onto the mannequins, and she stages one great tableau that finds Paula waking up in a bed in a most unlikely position, still wearing the headphones she was using the night before. (There will almost certainly be viewers who say: yeah, I've done that.) Linear plot is forsaken for scenes, skits and observations: there is a strong sense of a film patching itself together much as its heroine does, a marriage of form and subject that obviously suits a modestly budgeted indie like this more than it would a glossy romcom. What Jeune Femme nails is an idea of muddling through, which many twenty- and thirtysomethings - for whom job security, and even life security, has never been on the table - cannot fail to recognise: here are ninety-odd minutes of consolation for anyone labouring away under late capitalism, unsure of the rules of the game, let alone how they might win.

Jeune Femme opens in selected cinemas from today, and is available to stream through Curzon Home Cinema.  

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