It’s been an exceptional year for female film debuts (Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird at the forefront). And Léonor Serraille’s Jeune Femme (alternately called Montparnasse Bienvenue) is one of the shining examples of this trend in 2017 cinema.
As Lyon-originating Paula Simonian (Laetitia Dosch) very literally bangs her head against a wall to gain traction in her newfound home of Paris, the opening scene of Jeune Femme finds her kicked out of her longtime photographer boyfriend’s apartment. In cliche fashion, Joachim Deloche (Grégoire Monsaingeon) is much older than she, and has built the foundation of his career on a now famous photo of her when she was, well, younger. At thirty-one (though she’ll tell you she’s twenty-nine because “it’s the same thing, isn’t it?”), she suddenly seems to have lost her clout with Joachim, which is how she ends up lying face up with a head wound outside his door, worse than a dog. To that effect, the song that concludes the film is Carte Contact’s “Like A Dog,” featuring the apropos chorus, “Love me, love me, love me like a dog/Take me, take me, take me now/Hit me hit me hit me like a dog, take me take me take me home.” And for a time, this is how Paula feels after being cast out by her so-called master, the possessor of her heart, and the one who for so long had influenced her every thinking process.
While at the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, Paula explains her violent behavior with the sad revelation, “I was everything to him, and now I’m nothing.” The doctor tries to assuage her by noting, “You have your freedom now.” She glares at him, set off anew by his attempt at somehow inferring that this rejection is a blessing in disguise. She seethes, “Freedom?! That’s for egoists,” her rage reigniting as she breaks glass. Resultantly, she gets put on lockdown for a night before being set “free” again into the streets of Paris, where she has no one to turn to except Joachim’s cat, which she finds roaming outside of his apartment and so decides to keep it for herself, as though also maintaining a piece of Joachim as well (or does she just want some form of ransom to keep him in contact?).
Being that the past decade has been spent being Joachim’s personal model, ergo a kept woman, Paula has little in the way of work experience and is estranged from what’s left of her family–her mother (Nathalie Richard), a hardened woman who isn’t exactly “warm” when Paula finally does concede to turning to her for help. As she navigates the Montparnasse related waters of Paris, the chip on her shoulder–her fighting spirit–never wanes, the way it might with other French heroines; one could even argue that Amélie was too fragile for the extremely comfortable environment of Montmartre. A testament to her ability to transform grapes into wine, she attends a costume party in her homeless state as Amy Winehouse by overly covering her head wound with hair wrapped over the areas just above the brow. When one door literally shuts in her face, she forces another one to open.
Confrontational and ever-inquisitive, Paula strikes up a conversation one day while in between “situations” with a mall security guard named Ousmane (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) after telling him his suit is too small. He fires back, “That can be changed. Your heterochromatic eyes cannot.” Taking the hint, Paula balks, “You’re not my type anyway,” and backs away to smoke her cigarette (because the French will always smoke cigarettes in any century in Paris). Feeling remorseful and a little attracted, Ousmane asks, “What is your type?” When Paula describes the fifty-year-old flaccidity of Joachim, Ousmane rolls his eyes, “That’s not very imaginative.” Paula shrugs, “Paris has no imagination. There’s too much money here.” The subtle digs at Paris in this manner made by Serraille’s dialogue, elucidate how, in many ways, it’s become just as bad if not worse than New York in terms of not fostering artistic pursuits via affordability. For these are the two cities once perceived as the meccas of art. But then, Paula isn’t an artist. Just a wandering soul looking for someone to tie hers to. That was the purpose of Joachim. In this aimless new life, Dosch lends her character plenty of relatability. Like a hybrid of Julianne Moore and Julie Delpy, she is an actress with the range to play a deadbeat babysitter, plucky shopgirl and ethereal street urchin.
Coming to grips with an existence she never could have anticipated, Paula takes advantage of what Paris does best: throws one random lifelines of beneficial destiny. As is the case when a stranger on the metro mistakes her for an old elementary school acquaintance named Sarah, and she goes with it in order to secure a meal and a place to say. The city makes us do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do in the quaintness of the country. But this is the entire irony of Jeune Femme, for Paula is not a young girl anymore, and should know better by now since “thirty-one is practically forty.” By hook or crook, she’s got to figure it out, even if all this means is, well, not. Or at least accepting that it’s impossible to through the conventional means once so easily available to our forebears.
At the beginning of the film, she tells her doctor she has no one in Paris. By the end, in a discussion with a different one, she suddenly realizes that it is the conversations you have with strangers that can be the most intimate and comforting, assuring us that no one is ever really alone in the seemingly anonymous abyss of a city like Paris. Where once she wanted to be fixed to one specific person, Paula commences to understand that the cult of codependency is often relied upon solely due to a deficit in the art of social encounters. Paris can cure that deficit right quick if one wants to survive there.