Jeune femme’ subverts conventions with its flawed title character
A millennial malaise has swept popular culture, as less refined protagonists are taking centre-stage. New York has Obvious Child; London has Fleabag; and now Paris has Jeune femme. In her debut feature film, Léonor Serraille set out to “invent a female character we don’t see in French cinema; someone who isn’t too perfect, too heroic”.
Her lively script draws on her experiences in Montparnasse as a young adult, a period defined by urban loneliness. Broken after the demise of her 10-year romance, Paula (Laetitia Dosch) pieces herself back together by mending damaged relationships and forging new ones. From the outset, Jeune femme grapples with the struggles of Generation Y, showing Paula’s desperation when she head-butts her ex-boyfriend’s door and spews a furious monologue to camera.
“Léonor wanted the audience to feel really bored by this woman at the beginning,” says Dosch in her French-tipped English. “Will she shut up? Will she calm down? And then get used to her and discover her and get over our prejudices. What is beautiful about this film is that she could really become homeless, she could really become crazy, but she climbs back, little by little.”
The comedy was rapturously received at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Caméra d’Or (the equivalent of the Palme d’Or for the first-time film-maker). “We were so lucky that it happened because it changed the destiny of Jeune femme,” says Dosch. “The awards are on TV so people wanted to see the film after that. We were gasping next to Joaquin Phoenix onstage and Will Smith was there saying hello. That was very weird. Completely crazy.”
Dosch – who is known in France for her 80-character one-woman show – was recognised for her explosive performance as Paula at the Césars (akin to the Oscars), where she was nominated for Best New Actress. How did she prepare for this career-changing role? “For me it was like having a freer little sister. I walked down the street in character, talking to myself, to see how people looked at me as a misfit. I loved doing that. Paula’s situation is very typical of her time.”
This timeliness is also apparent in Jeune femme’s presentation of sexual consent. In one scene, Paula disarms a stranger who complains he “doesn’t like sleeping alone” with the deadpan quip: “Me neither, maybe you should get a teddy bear?” Later on, the narrative takes a more sinister turn when she scrambles to escape from her former partner who, ignoring her cries, prises off her clothes. The voyeurism of the top shot makes for uncomfortable viewing, encouraging empathy towards Paula. Serraille’s evaluation of this theme chimes with Hollywood’s #MeToo movement.
Despite its near-unanimous support in the Anglophone world, Time’s Up has been viewed with more suspicion in France – even though its home-grown stars Léa Seydoux, Florence Darel and Judith Godrèche have all accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct. In January, 100 Frenchwomen penned an open letter for Le Monde, condemning the way #MeToo has “prevented men from practising their profession as punishment, when the only thing they did wrong was touch a knee, try to steal a kiss or speak about ‘intimate’ things at a work dinner”. The missive also criticises the country’s #BalanceTonPorc hashtag (translated as #OutYourPig) for expressing “an enthusiasm for sending pigs to the slaughter”. Laetitia Dosch is hesitant to come down strongly on either side of the argument. “You have women saying, ‘We can’t treat men this way!’ because now they’re getting scared of us,” she says, carefully. “I can understand their points. It’s time to think and not get too impulsive because these are complicated questions and it’s difficult to make law about this.”
It’s not just #MeToo that has divided the French film industry, the community was similarly polarised by Jeune femme upon its release. Dosch admits to being “deeply upset” by negative reviews on the French radio programme Le Masque et la Plume (The Mask and the Pen), where the male critics lambasted her character’s “selfishness” and “poor childcare skills”.
“Characters are too formulaic in France,” she claps back. “They’re definitely very prim and proper. Either you’re a little crazy, or you’re sweet and vulnerable, or you’re a very serious lawyer. I think we have a big fight ahead for women characters in art. There is a tendency to oversimplify their behaviour, but I do hope things are evolving.”