Jeune Femme Review
Jeune Femme might be the first film in history that feels equally like Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, and his earlier, considerably more pessimistic character study Naked. As we follow Paula (Laetitia Dosch) navigating the streets of Paris after a break-up, we see her do everything she can in order to put on a brave face and make the best of her living situation - even if that means taking on a mistaken identity to find friendship, find work, or keep a roof over her head, manipulating those around her without even realising she’s doing it. Her personality is fraught between an inner battle between pessimism and optimism, making for an intriguing character study that remains interesting even as the film struggles to cohere all the different aspects of Paula’s life into a satisfying whole.
After breaking up with her artist boyfriend of ten years, Paula stubbornly decides to try make it on her own in a capital city she even admits “hates people”. In her early thirties with no work experience, and cut off entirely from friends and family (her estranged mother shows her nothing but disdain upon her reappearance), her determination to prove the world wrong clashes with her need to appear independent. She finds herself taking up a mistaken identity in order to find friendship, lying about her professional life in order to get a place to stay, and doing a job she’d “rather die” than do, just to earn money. Her life is in crisis but she’s putting on a brave face as it all falls apart.
Director Léonor Serraille won the Camera D’Or, the prize for best debut feature, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. This isn’t entirely fathomable upon viewing the film itself, which often feels too indebted to other filmmakers, offering no singular artistic identity of her own. It can be best described as feeling like the claustrophobic melodrama of Xavier Dolan, but stripped of his stylish music video aesthetic, or Noah Baumbach’s collaborations with Greta Gerwig with the quirkiness toned down. The entire film feels anchored around Dosch’s lead performance, leading to a borderline Dogme-inflected sensibility that cuts through any unnecessary artifice, so we can ironically delve deeper into the life of a character who projects a different pretence to each person she meets.
The few notable stylistic choices there are, such as POV shots that enable Paula to rant directly to camera, also expose the lack of originality in the premise. It’s hard not to think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC series Fleabag as we follow a woman guiding us through a life crisis of her own making, with the ability to make you laugh one minute and wince the next. Serraille’s film leans harder on the drama than the comedy, but in its best moments, it feels so acutely observed that a form of awkward laughter feels like the only appropriate response to what’s unfolding onscreen.
If it wasn’t for Dosch’s central performance, the film would likely collapse under the weight of its varying subplots. As a depiction of a woman becoming overwhelmed by her life, the structural messiness arguably makes sense - but spending less time on certain conflicts than others (the fractured relationship with her mother is all but forgotten about in the interim scenes) means that the more affecting elements of her life carry no emotional weight that heightens the stakes in the other narrative strands. It often feels like there is a great film within Jeune Femme, but it just got lost in the editing suite; the emotional essence of Paula’s struggle remains, but it just doesn’t hit as hard as it should do.