Last week I decided to brave the arctic temperatures in Paris and venture out to the cinema. I wanted to see “Jeune femme” as the woman in the trailer reminded me a little of me: a loveable mess living in Paris, not quite sure where she is going in life, but trying her best. The film director, Léonor Seraille, won the Caméra d’or prize at Cannes, a prize awarded to directors who have made an exceptionally good first film. Last year’s prize went to Houda Benyamina for the phenomenal “Divines”.
In the opening scene, we see Paula knocking her head furiously on her boyfriend’s front door while screaming: LET ME IN! Anybody who has ever been dumped will relate to this. One minute you’re your partner’s whole world and the next you’re outside the home you’ve built together, holding a box containing all your worldly possessions. Eventually she stops knocking and walks away, but not without catnapping her boyfriend’s adorable fluffy white cat first. Where will she go? Hard to say as Paula has pushed away her friends and family after many years of doing whatever the hell she wanted. Indeed, we learn that Paula ran away abroad a few years ago with her boyfriend (who incidentally was also her university professor!), without a care for those she left behind. From this we gather that Paula also never finished her studies and therefore has no “marketable skills” to fall back on now, so to speak.
Urgently needing a place to sleep, Paula pays for several nights in a cheap dodgy motel. “This is just temporary” she says to the owner, when it’s evident to all that she has no other plan whatsoever. One day, she has a fortuitous encounter with a beguiling young woman in the metro. This woman mistakes her for a childhood friend and offers her a place to stay. Paula, who is no longer in denial about her situation, decides to play along. Lucky for Paula, her new friend knows someone who is offering a place to stay in a “chambre de bonne” in exchange for some babysitting. For anyone unfamiliar with the housing situation in Paris, “chambres de bonnes” are tiny rooms at the top of apartment buildings accessible only by a separate “service staircase”. Initially, these were reserved for a family’s maid. They are, let’s be honest, quite small and are usually in need of a fresh lick of paint. Nonetheless, they offer a cheaper housing alternative to the extortionate studio apartments in Paris.
Upon seeing the room Paula is obviously less than thrilled, but realises that she has to make the most of a bad situation. “Have you got any experience with children?” the mother asks, “Errr Yes, I love kids”, she replies. From here on begins an unconventional relationship between nanny and child. Paula doesn’t know what she’s doing, but, what the hell!, she’ll draw a fake moustache on her face if she has to! She may not be the best babysitter, but it’s clear she cares a lot for the child she is looking after. At the same time, Paula also gets a job as an underwear saleswoman in a mall, which we suppose is to occupy herself whilst waiting for her charge to come out of school. Later on in the film, her ex-boyfriend shows up and asks her why she has to work in a shopping mall. Why not? She replies. Paula has had a fall from grace, but it’s clear the whole experience has actually been beneficial to her. Who cares if you don’t have a dream job or a lavish apartment? The most important thing is that you conduct yourself with wit and charm, like Paula, and enjoy every day.
I came out of the cinema breathing a sigh of relief. Drawing a parallel with my own life, I realised I had not been doing so badly after all. On the other hand, I was also annoyed. In France there seems to be this prevailing notion that you are not employable unless you have done years and years of studies and gone to the best schools. This seems a waste when there are people like Paula out there, full of grit and determination.
I found this film highly enjoyable. I loved the fact that it is a reversal of the usual rags to riches story, with the character learning important life skills along the way. I also loved Laetitia Dosch’s interpretation of the character, her portrayal rang so true that I was really rooting for her at the end of the film. It’s possible however that I felt a particular affinity for the character as she and I share some similarities, but let that not deter you from watching the film.