Desire to Thrive: Jeune Femme and the 31 Year Old Heroine
The opening credits of Léonor Serraille’s Jeune Femme roll with a faint but distinct Parisian soundscape: traffic, a french-sounding siren and high-heeled footsteps. A young woman, Paula, bangs her fists against a closed apartment door until finally, she headbutts the hard wood with full force, knocking herself out. She wakes up at the hospital with a deep looking gash on her forehead. In a series of meandering explanations and rambles, she briefly explains her current life situation: She gave him ten years of her life and she hates Paris but here she is because she is adaptable and that photo, the one that made him famous, is a photo of her, it was supposed to make her immortal but fuck being immortal, she wants to be mortal, for once in her life, she wants to be mortal.
Jeune Femme can be added to the myriad of films in which adult women are forced to finally grow up and take control of their lives; films such as Tiny Furniture, Appropriate Behaviour and Frances Ha. Women who suddenly find themselves cut off from the comfort of White middle class stability are now forced to find a job, to find themselves and experience what it is to be mortal. If this is a canon, then Jeune Femme not only fits, but serves to exemplify it.
Of all the flailing heroines, Paula is perhaps the most reckless and uncouth. After working herself into an enraged tantrum, Paula wakes up, sedated in a hospital bed. At this point, the film starts to look a little like Girl, Interrupted, in which the heroine’s recovery takes place in a hospital bed. Alas, the time for healing and self-improvement has not arrived for Paula just yet. In an instant, she gets up and walks out of the hospital, stealing a brick-red coat (that perfectly suits her gait and is to become her signature look throughout the film) along the way. Our heroine’s self-discovery was not meant for the comfort of an institution but for the unforgiving streets of Paris.
As the film unfolds, the blunt force that Paula applies to everything in her life, including her relationships, begins to soften. We begin to see her as what she is: vulnerable. A woman without the stability brought by money or job prospects or family; a woman scrounging to continue, in Paris, of all places, a city that waits for no one. Every opportunity is henceforth vital to Paula’s continuance; every job interview, every chance encounter with a stranger. Her life is now driven by her crippling desperation (which is so obvious it might as well be written on her forehead).
On the metro, a woman (Léonie Simaga) believes Paula to be her childhood friend and, starved of friendly affection, Paula plays along. She strikes up conversation with disinterested strangers, one of whom, a security guard named Ousmane, begins to reciprocate after repeated exposure. She takes a job as a nanny for a young girl and learns to abandon herself in order to devote her attention to a child.
With her long red hair, a penchant for climbing on furniture and a knack for dancing her troubles away, the cyclical nature of her trying and failing becomes a testament to the strong will of a woman who has absolutely no idea what she’s doing. In Jeune Femme, Serraille gives us a rare glimpse at the artist’s muse in her natural habitat, no longer the subject of male affection and creative inspiration. The artist dumped her, she's grown a little older, and the camera is busy with new subject matter. Without the stability of her boyfriend, the woman from the photograph is forced to take responsibility for herself. Paula’s persistence is admirable and thankfully, it grows during the course of the film from basic survival to, at the very least, the desire to thrive.
[Sarah Saraj, 2nd year BASc Arts and Sciences at UCL]
First-time filmmaker Léonor Serraille and the dazzling Laetitia Dosch burst onto the scene with Jeune Femme, a raucous and playful portrait of a woman in her early 30s in Paris. Following in the footsteps of Frances Ha and Fleabag, it’s a sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious and always relatable nod to the chaos and candour of modern life.