Director: Léonor Serraille
Screenplay: Léonor Serraille
Starring: Léonor Sérraille, Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Grégoire Monsaingeon
Runtime: 97 Minutes
The potent energy of sprightly abandon and ire can be felt in the opening scenes of Montparnasse Bienvenue, known in the UK by its original French title Jeune Femme. Following a recent breakup, Paula Simonian (Laetitia Dosch) knocks herself unconscious with a head injury while trying to break back into her former lover’s apartment, only to face the remainder of the day ahead by wrapping her hair into a beehive to hide the cut.
Paula returns to Paris after a long absence, on the verge of turning thirty, the jobless and friendless young woman attempts to reinvent herself through a series of new encounters. These encounters with former friends who are sick and tired of her routine recklessness, and inability to settle herself down in her early 30s, is contrasted with her run-ins with naïve strangers wrapped up too much in their own world to question her further.
It follows no particular story or narrative beyond the strange circumstances in which Paula manages to somehow get herself into by bluffing her way through exchanges. From a job in a lingerie store to a lodger to a dancer and her young daughter to which she becomes an incapable tutor, and a friendship she stirs up with a stranger on the metro who thinks she is someone else, and Paula just never corrects her.
It’s a different way to structure a drama like this and moves at a pace that feels comfortably lengthy and meandering while adhering to a strict 97-minute runtime. Kudos must go to Clémence Carré’s editing for sustaining the illusion for the entire duration, all shot by Émilie Noblet’s invitingly warm cinematography.
Léonor Serraille is the main attraction though, here making her feature debut as director and first major foray into acting. She walked away with the Caméra d'Or (Best First Feature Film) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and it’s not hard to see what they saw in her beyond the startling heterochromia of her green and hazel eyes.
Her focus on dialogue through a drip-feed of dry sarcasm and sobering contemplations on the positions of French youth in the contemporary landscape of the urban jungle is sharp and clear, but delivered with a comforting naturalism by Serraille. Her Paula channels the immediate visual signifiers of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly as she initially sets out on her aimless quest with a cat in tow, but there’s all the ferocity of the lost young women in the works of Noah Baumbach.
She might not be as hip as she thinks she is, but as far as antiheroines go she might be one of the strongest of recent years. She blurs the line between irksome and endearing, she can downright infuriate while making you utterly empathise with her perspective the longer you spend with her. She’s a chameleon in “a city that doesn’t like people” and has learned by second nature to adapt to her surroundings almost immediately, with the slow realisation chasing at her heels that her inability to remain static might be alienating her from any traditional human experience.
It’s those relationships that she does appear to want to maintain that keep the whole thing anchored. There’s security guard Ousmane (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) who she strikes up a budding friendship with that may become something more, the paternal bond she forms with the young girl Lila who comes to treasure her childish nature, and those same exhibited qualities feeding into her complex with her own mother (Nathalie Richard) as they fight in the way one would with a tantrum-throwing toddler.
In spite of all this, it’s a genuinely funny and expressive feature that transitions between comedy and drama without feeling like a melancholy effort. It certainly takes its more serious stances later on as her former partner Joachim (Grégoire Monsaingeon) re-enters and tempts her back to a life of without agency as another object for him to possess and admire. If the rebuttal feels a little ill-judged considering the path the film almost takes us down, it’s another stepping stone for her in her ongoing quest to find herself as much as mature.
Jeune Femme is a dazzling debut that hums with liveliness as eclectic as its jazz score. Léonor Serraille brings so much to her portrayal of arrested development and unfocused desires that it makes her one of the year’s most believable leads.