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Cannes Film Review: ‘Jeune femme’ (Montparnasse Bienvenüe)

Variety logo Variety 5/29/2017 Peter Debruge
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In the final shot of “Jeune femme,” a brittle yet unbreakable young lady named Julia stares directly into the camera, peering out through two differently colored eyes, one brilliant green, the other hazel. You don’t come across such an intense gaze every day, and the same could be said of Julia’s spirit. She’s one in a million, as far as movies are concerned: a wild, well-rounded young female character forced from the passive comforts of a 10-year relationship and now fighting to reinvent herself on the streets of Paris.

Made in France with a modest budget but considerable insight, Cannes Camera d’Or winner “Jeune femme” was directed by La Fémis graduate Léonor Serraille — while pregnant, no less! — and features young women in nearly every creative role, from camera to composer, sound to set design. The presence of strong, capable women across all departments is every bit as important as the fact it chooses to focus on one as its protagonist, doing so in a way that resists the male tradition of introducing a hero, identifying a problem and admiring his composure as he races to solve it.

Here, Laetitia Dosch (star of French indie breakout “La bataille de Solférino”) plays Julia, whose turbulent life and personality swings up and down so briskly, and so often, it’s enough to drive you crazy. She’s prone to mistakes, makes no plans beyond the moment-to-moment demands of survival, and has no apparent goal other than to assert her individuality — all of which makes for an incredibly rich, if frequently frustrating character portrait, rendered compelling watchable by Dosch’s blazing-wildfire performance.

Serraille studied literature before switching to cinema, and her sharp attention to the detail distinguishes “Jeune femme” from so many first-time indie features. It feels a bit like Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” minus the laugh-out-loud one-liners, as the writer-director follows Julia through the aftermath of her breakup with a bougie photographer, Joachim Deloche (Grégoire Monsaingeon), who owes his success to his since-abandoned muse but seems to have no use for her now.

We sense in Julia’s struggle the way she had allowed herself to be defined as “Joachim’s girlfriend” all these years, and though there’s incredible social pressure for someone in her position to pick an identity and stick with it, the movie nonjudgmentally accepts her, contradictions and all. Like a guileless version of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley character, Julia adapts her personality — and her age, which vacillates between 29 and 31 — to suit whoever she’s with: Responding to a nanny-wanted ad, she allows her potential employer to believe she’s an art student; mistaken for someone’s long-lost childhood friend on the subway, she gamely plays along; and so on.

That seductive, chameleon-esque tendency is best illustrated during a hilariously insincere interview for a job at a shopping-mall lingerie stand, during which the disorganized drama-magnet insists, “I love organization, and I’m calm,” when a few scenes earlier, we’ve seen the chain-smoking squalor in which she feels most comfortable. It’s only when the people she’s molding herself to impress reject her that she turns nasty, lashing out with insults and anger — as in the opening scene, where she splits her forehead open bashing it against the door to Joachim’s apartment.

That chapter of her life is over, although she hasn’t quite accepted it yet, and though the movie is essentially about Julia coming around to define herself independent of her ex, it ends with the conversation they really ought to have had at the beginning. There’s also an equivalent opportunity to confront her mother (Nathalie Richard), whose cold reception potentially explains a lot about Julia’s upbringing.

Recovering from her head wound in the hospital, Julia steals another woman’s brick-red coat and heads back to her old apartment, rescuing Joachin’s cat from the bodega down below. Julia’s in no position to handle a cat, seeing as how she can barely take care of herself, just as it seems inappropriate to root for romance at a moment when she finds herself in such disarray — though Serraille teases the possibility with Ousmane (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), the tall black man who works mall security. “You know what you remind me of?” he asks. “A little wild monkey.”

Ousmane means it as a compliment, presumably identifying what’s cute about such an out-of-control character, although it’s alarming how close to rock-bottom Julia’s situation is most of the time. Though not “homeless” in the living-on-the-streets sense Americans use, she’s certainly “sans domicile fixe” (without a steady address), and that’s a scary, seat-of-your-pants way to live in Paris. At best, she has a neighborhood, which explains the film’s far-less-appealing international title, “Montparnasse Bienvenüe” (after the nearest metro station). But just as Sinatra sings about New York City, if she can make it here, she’ll make it anywhere — and that’s the look we see burning behind her mismatched eyes in “Jeune femme’s” final shot.

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