'Montparnasse Bienvenue' ('Jeune femme'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

Jeune Femme - Cannes Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Aimless by design.

French director Leonor Serraille's debut feature stars Laetitia Dosch as an aimless young woman trying to get by in the Parisian neighborhood of the title.

A young woman — or jeune femme as the French title helpfully notes — tries to make something of her life in Montparnasse Bienvenue, the admirably free-flowing debut feature from writer-director Leonor Serraille. Set in the Parisian Left-Bank neighborhood of the title and made with an almost entirely female crew, this loose-limbed, character-focused film is a celebration of a red-haired free spirit that, however, doesn’t skimp on life’s darker sides. Its Cannes Un Certain Regard berth should launch the film’s international festival career, while adventurous distributors, especially in Francophile territories, will want to take a look as well. As an added bonus, it should help consolidate the reputation of its leading lady, Age of Panic’s Laetitia Dosch, whose profile in the French indie scene has been growing but who hasn’t managed to cross over into the mainstream.

“I’m not bright but I’m honest,” is one of the first things Paula (Dosch) says after having returned to Paris after a long period abroad. The 31-year-old has no money, no immediate plan for the future and is at the end of her rope after discovering that she won’t be able to crash at the home of an old flame, Joachim (Gregoire Monsaingeon), a photographer who built his fame on an early picture of her but who clearly doesn’t feel he still owes her something. Indeed, over the course of the film, Paula encounters a lot of people that seem to have very different ideas about what’s wrong and what’s right, which might feed into her — clearly erroneous — feeling that she isn’t very bright.

Serraille and the always very intense Dosch construct their character in a fascinating way, having her oscillate between buoyant and bouncy and then anxious and agitated, though clearly always with the best of intentions. Especially in the early going, there is a picaresque aimlessness and indecisiveness to her character that might take some getting used to for audience raised on narrative-driven films, as Paula pisses off a friend at whose house she is supposed to stay the night; shows up unannounced at the home of a man she met at a party earlier — when he unexpectedly tries to puts his hands on her, she replies with the immortal line: “Go touch yourself!” — and when she somewhat creepily finagles her way into Joachim’s apartment in his absence for no apparent reason.   

But her actions also reveal her true desires and her despondency and her tendency to rely on her improvisation skills to make it through another day. In that sense, the film’s score, by Julie Roue, is perfectly suited to the material as it both jazzy — which relies heavily on improvisation — and a tad melancholic, underlining how Paula seems to move through a world that mostly seems to be oblivious to her presence.

But audiences that will stick with Paula will get to know her better and start to see the rather pure person hiding underneath her frazzled and sometimes clueless persona. Things also slowly start to look up when the protagonist finds a roof over her head, an unlikely job as a nanny — some suspension of disbelief is required here, as not a lot of Paris moms would accept someone with no experience or references — and, later, as a sales woman of lingerie at a department store. Her relationship with her charge, the 6-year-old Lila (Lilas Gilberti-Poisot), is both a source of humor as well as a way for the film to take stock of Paula’s inherent duality, with her occasionally acting as a child too, though she’s also being confronted with certain adult responsibilities. Her growing affection for an overqualified security guard (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) at the mall further reveals how she’s forced to confront her own desires for what lies beyond the here and now.

It is clear that Serraille has made a portrait of a very specific individual but that she’s also saying something more general about her own generation. The thirthysomethings of the Occident have arguably had to fight less for things such as access to higher education and the freedom to travel around the world and are able to delay settling down for a decade or more compared to their parents. Indeed, the current FOMO/YOLO generation seems to live only in the now (“I’m nostalgic for things I haven’t yet done,” Paula significantly states at one point). Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, some people might find themselves overwhelmed by all the possibilities and choices available, their freedoms in some sense working as a prison until they can figure out what it is that is really important to them. Paula is one such a woman, enjoying her freedom to hop off a plane from Mexico and come back to a city she knows but then having to totally improvise what her life is going to look like once she’s there.

The area around the titular Left-Bank metro station offers a busy and vibrant backdrop to the story, which is fluidly edited by Clemence Carre and which cinematographer Emilie Noblet captures with a careless insouciance that Paula also displays in her approach to her own life.

Production company: Blue Monday Productions
Cast: Laetitia Dosch, Gregoire Monsaingeon, Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Leonie Simiga, Nathalie Richard, Erika Sainte, Lilas Gilberti-Poisot, Audrey Bonnet
Writer-Director: Leonor Serraille
Producer: Sandra da Fonseca
Director of photography: Emilie Noblet
Production designer: Valerie Valero
Costume designer: Hyat Luszpinski
Editor: Clemence Carre
Music: Julie Roue
Casting: Fanny De Donceel, Youna De Peretti
Sales: Be for Films

In French
No rating, 97 minutes