This delectable French coming-of-age farce is powered by a stunning central performance from actor Laetitia Dosch.
How on earth is she going to keep this up? That’s the question, posed internally, that sprang to mind while watching the gently delightful debut feature Jeune Femme. The “she” is ambiguous though: does it refer to director Léonor Serraille, who boldly opens her film at the moment her lead character reaches the violent peak of a nervous breakdown? Or is it a reference to motor-mouthed lead actor Laetitia Dosch, who plays the eponymous ‘Jeune Femme’ Paula like a red-headed tornado hurtling through the grotty streets of Paris?
Keep it up they both do, as the film traverses the unsightly ruins of Paula’s early thirties and just keeps throwing up amusing situations and stimulating character interactions. The film plays like an assured American comedy with its quick-fire pacing and conventional, redemptive arc. But the film is pure French in its tone and atmosphere – it’s a love letter to Paris, but one written in a concoction of red wine, blood and cat food.
Paula is a shambolic mess who manages to instantly alienate everyone everyone around her. She blurts out awkward truths to friends looking to help her and is then turned out once more onto her ear. She attempts to explain to a doctor that she’s not insane with perhaps the most bizarre, free form, rambling monologue imaginable, before becoming physically abusive and in need of sedation. She’s like the mangy, one-eyed cat with an unsightly facial scar that people just habitually boot from their doorway and into the night.
Talking of cats, the only living being she can rely on is a pearl-coloured fur ball called Machacha who she nabs from her photographer boyfriend after her kicks her out. Although this feline character is dealt with in a direct, unsentimental way, Serraille plays off its essential cuteness against the fact that it serves no real function in Paula’s life except as a physical annoyance for her ex.
As the story rolls on, Paula tries desperately to piece her life back together, but crucially she doesn’t ever submit to change. Her life takes some major swerves which she choses to take within her erratic stride. Sure, she moves away from the dark, dark place in which we see her at the film’s open, but remains the same person with the same ideals, unwilling to be submerged in social niceties but understanding that she needs to conform just a little bit in order to survive.
Dosch is a revelation. She embodies the character so fully that it’s hard to see where she ends and Paula begins. It’s a highly entertaining turn and there would probably be no film without it. But even though she’s a tremendous comic actor, working verbal inflections and subtle facial expressions for all they’re worth, this is above all a portrait of a fractured woman unable to suppress her personality for individual gain. The film played in the Un Certain Regard strand of the festival, but like so many of the other sidebar features in 2017, it would’ve held its head up very high in a largely weak competition line-up. Dosch certainly deserves an acting prize.
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