"what are women in their thirties actually for?"

JEUNE FEMME (15) 2017 France 97mins. Directed by Léonor Serraille; with Laetitia Dosch, Grégoire Monsaingeon, Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Léonie Simaga.

It could be said that being poor in modern day Paris carries certain tropes: re-launching oneself as a babysitter (a live-in au pair ideally, to solve the homelessness issue).  Hearing the words “CDD” (that’s “fixed-term” contract, as opposed to “permanent”).   Finessing the art of pretending – pretending to have style, money, and some kind of narrative.  Jeune Femme is the story of one woman trying to navigate all of that.  But contrary to what the title suggests, 31-year-old Paula looks old.  

Jeune Femme comes to UK audiences in May, having already won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for best first feature film.  It’s the debut of 32-year-old writer-director Léonor Seraille, who wrote the screenplay for her graduation project.  In it, protagonist Paula – played by Laetitia Dosch – returns to Paris after a brutal breakup from her much wealthier and much more successful photographer boyfriend.  Homeless and jobless, and estranged from her family, Paula begins the task of rebuilding her life.  Or rather, the task of surviving. 

This is not a romantic Paris.  There are no longer the lovers’ padlocks on the bridges of the Seine.  This is the 14th district (the film also goes by the name Montparnasse Bienvenüe) and Paula is quick to explain why she hates it.  This is a Paris without imagination – because “there’s too much money in it”.  But where Paula is first introduced as old, brutish - psychotic even after a stint in hospital - the audience gradually finds she is clumsy, earnest, and more like a child. 

As Paula upgrades her life through different ventures and with questionable types of accommodation, Jeune Femme ultimately poses one question: what are women in their thirties actually for?  And what are they for if they don’t have an education, or a “passion”, or looks, or dreams of motherhood? This is a bleak film in many ways, but it’s also funny.  Sexual predators are awkward, and pathetic, as well as frightening.  Trying not to be a failure in your thirties is human.  Mediocrity is okay.  Despite all the performing that jobs, relationships, and parties entail, the one thing that can offer authenticity is autonomy. 

In some ways, Jeune Femme looks set to be part of a tradition characterised by the post-financial crisis period.  After all, it’s a coming-of-age tale that takes in the themes of material hardship and prolonged adolescence and relays them well.  In an interview with the FT, Seraille pays tribute to her generation, saying that with Paula, she wanted to show “someone finding human things to live for in an increasingly dark world”.  

But there’s a long tradition of trying to make it work in Paris, which UK audiences in particular will remember from the work of Jean Rhys, or George Orwell during his plongeur days.  Either way, Jeune Femme will resonate more with those sympathetic to Seraille’s message.

Laura Wilkinson