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aka Montparnasse Bienvenüe

D: Léonor Serraille / 98m

Cast: Laetitia Dosch, Grégoire Monsaingeon, Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Léonie Simaga, Erika Sainte, Lilas-Rose Gilberti-Poisot, Audrey Bonnet, Nathalie Richard

After ten years living in Mexico with her boyfriend, professor and renowned photographer Joachim Deloche (Monsaingeon), Paula Simonian (Dosch) finds herself back in Paris (where they used to live), and chasing Joachim in an attempt to win him back. When her intital attempt fails – and leaves her with a nasty cut on her forehead – she takes his cat and decides to make a go of things by herself. However, that’s not as easy as it might seem. Paula has no friends, no job, no money, and a personality that could be charitably called inconstant. Moving from couch to couch, it’s not until she’s mistaken for someone else and befriends Yuki (Simaga) that things begin to improve. She finds work as a live-in nanny, finds a second job working in a knicker bar in a large shopping centre, and attempts to reconnect with her estranged mother (Richard). There’s a tentative romance on the horizon with security guard Ousmane (Ndiaye), even more tentative contact from Joachim, and surprising news that helps Paula make a number of important decisions…

Winner of the Caméra d’Or (for its director) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Jeune femme opens with Paula headbutting Joachim’s front door and sustaining that nasty cut. In hospital, she launches into a free-form diatribe that seeks to challenge the nurse tending to her, and the wider world around her. It’s a direct confrontation, fuelled by what appears to be long-held anger, and a clear indication from writer/director Serraille that Paula is definitely not a shrinking violet. But Serraille isn’t going to let her volatility be the only aspect of Paula’s personality to define her. As the movie progresses, we find that she can be coy and approachable (as with Ousmane), enthusiastic and open (as during the interview for the knicker bar), sad and yet determined (when confronting her mother), silly and childish (in her role as a nanny), and expressive and flirtatious (with Yuki). With all this it would be easy to view Paula as a mass of contradictions, but Serraille’s take on the character is much more subtle than that. Paula is a chameleon, adapting to the people she’s with, and her surroundings. She even looks different at every turn, her features transforming themselves noticeably but to good advantage given the needs of the situation.

What this all provides is a portrait of an enigmatic, rootless woman who knows what she should be doing to fit in, but who finds it easier to compartmentalise her life and behave accordingly. All her relationships are transitory, and end despite Paula’s best efforts to maintain them. No matter how hard she tries, and no matter how good her intentions, it’s inevitable that Paula will need to start again. And keep trying – because what else can she do? Dosch gives a terrific performance as Paula, vulnerable and tough, self-assured and resilient, but still adrift from everyone around her. It’s an unsparing portrayal, highlighting the character’s flaws and strengths in equal measure, and doing more than enough to make her more and more sympathetic as events unfold. By the end you’re rooting for her, but Serraille remains true to Paula’s knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The final shot is a triumph of sorts for Paula, but in a bittersweet way that adds poignancy to the moment. It’s confident, persuasive elements such as this that help elevate the material from being another worthy yet predictable examination of how hard it is to be a woman in today’s society – and having its lead character be the architect of most of her troubles makes it resonate so much more.

Rating: 8/10 – with an awards-worthy performance from Dosch allied to a perceptive script and assured direction, Jeune femme is an intelligent, deftly handled movie with an eminently relatable heroine, and a sly streak of humour beneath all the drama; regarded by some as the French Frances Ha, this is far more involving and far more interesting, and is effortlessly sincere to boot.