Whether you’re a Francophile or not, we’ve all seen and experienced at least one version of the streets of Paris. In 1951’s An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli turned the Parisian streets into an all-singing, all-dancing spectacle of American wonder. Audrey Tautou’s breakout Amélie (2001) presented France’s capital as a wanderlust-filled storybook dream. And Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004) let audiences spend a day in the hot and hazy city with our two favourite romantic leads, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. These versions of Paris are not attempts at realistically portraying the city. Instead, the colourful, fast-paced world Jean-Pierre Jeunet presents to us with a film like Amélie, is a Paris that reflects its titular character more than the city itself.
Therefore, what the streets of Paris show us tells us something about the person who walks those very same streets. We see Paris through the eyes of any given film’s protagonist, or, to be more specific, we see Paris through the eyes of the flâneur (or flâneuse, as coined by Lauren Elkin). Popularised by Walter Benjamin (with debt to Charles Baudelaire), the flâneur refers to a stroller, or saunterer, who walks, observes, and portrays the streets of Paris (or any other city, for that matter). The flâneur is a masculine term, whilst Elkin’s 21st century update feminises the word. And it’s in Léonor Serraille’s Camera d’Or-winning debut feature Jeune Femme that we see the flâneuse in action once more.
Unlike the dreamy Parisian streets so many filmmakers present, Serraille’s vision of Paris — specifically Montparnasse — follows the likes of 1995’s La Haine in that the messy, unflattering, and authentic sides of the city are shown. And, like Serraille’s depiction of Paris, the filmmaker does not glorify her protagonist, Laetitia Dosch’s star-making turn as Paula, either. Instead, Paula, too, is a bit of a mess herself.
Jeune Femme opens with Paula in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Opening the film with Paula banging on her (ex-)boyfriend’s door, Seraille asserts Paula’s, and Jeune Femme’s, confident and unapologetic voice from the beginning scene. The audience are introduced to Paula in the middle of this detonation of self. However, rather than alienating audiences — after all, we’re one minute into the film and know nothing about Paula other than that she’s on the wrong side of a breakup — we come to admire Paula as Seraille focuses on the practicalities of Paula’s breakup, for example the fact she has no place to stay and very little money, rather than the emotional side. It’s from this sharp opening that Paula’s wit and integrity shine through. She recovers from her breakdown, and leads herself through the streets of Paris.
Over the course of the film, we see Paula travel around the city. She walks from her mother’s house to her friend’s apartment to becoming a live-in childminder in an expensive apartment for a wealthy mother. The circumstances Paula finds herself in change, as do the settings, but, importantly, Paula never changes herself. Instead, she adapts. Paula adapts to the city and its people, observing and mimicking those she finds interesting.
In one scene, Paula goes to an interview for a job in a lingerie department store. Throughout the scene, Paula espouses white lies in order to get the job, pretending she feels passionately about selling lingerie. The scene would be depressing for its commentary on how we have to change ourselves to survive, if not for Dosch’s perfectly timed delivery and constant presence. Even though Paula is lying and pretending to be someone she is not, Dosch’s fierce and fast-paced delivery means we always know the real Paula is underneath the surface: she refuses to lose herself.
Jeune Femme is a revelation of a character study not because Paula is on a search for identity, but because she already understands and accepts her identity. The film isn’t a search for the self but more of an exploration of what Paula can do with what she’s got, because she isn’t going to change herself for anyone. And it’s through Paris’ dark, smelly, streets, through the Metro’s busy trains, and through the many overpriced and undersized apartments that Paula is able to figure out what to do with herself. Like Paris, Paula refuses to change herself for what others want her to be. Her exploration of herself through her exploration of the city leads her to realise that she doesn’t need to define herself or her role in the world, but to see where the streets lead her.
Julie Roué’s upbeat music perfectly syncs to the colourful, edgy aura Dosch creates for Paula. Emilie Noblet’s frames Paula in the city with the bright, in-your-face colours created by production designer Valérie Valéro and costume designer Hyat Luszpinski. Through these micro elements, filmmaker Serraille ensures the city never overshadows Paula: Paula is too bright to fade into Paris. Instead, Paula, too, becomes one of the observed of Paris’ world rather than simply the observer.