Alice Pember craves a chip butty after watching a new film by Léonor Serraille.
I had an odd reaction to my first viewing of Jeune Femme: it made me hungry. But not hungry in a generalised sense. This was, rather, the sort of urgent craving which can only be conquered by indulging, abundantly and messily, in the desired foodstuff. And so it was that I found myself, at 11pm on a school night, trawling Stepney Green for a chip butty. But I was not looking for any old chip butty. I needed the seafront chip butty of my childhood. I needed a fluffy white roll, floppy chip-shop chips, tart with Sarson’s malt vinegar and slathered in ketchup.
At my kitchen table an hour later (mission completed, butty demolished) I pondered my peculiar response to the film. Jeune Femmeis not, in any concrete sense, ‘about’ food. It’s been touted as a coming-of-age film which, in director Léonor Serraille’s words, charts its main character Paula’s journey ‘from a girl to a woman, from an object to a subject’. The film opens with Paula howling at the front door that her photographer boyfriend has just unceremoniously slammed in her face. It transpires that, content with being his ward and muse for the last ten years, Paula has stagnated. Unable or unwilling to forge an identity of her own, when she is thrust out onto the streets of Paris to invent her life anew she is so lacking in a distinct sense of self that she picks up and puts down identities at random. To present herself for a babysitting job she becomes an arts student; when mistaken for a stranger’s childhood friend she accepts the error without correction; in an interview for a lingerie shop she performs the role of vapid shop girl to secure the job. Flitting between these identities, Paula’s selfhood is so rootless that she cannot even seem to decide how to wear her hair. She modifies its style endlessly, changing it between scenes with an indecisiveness that mirrors her own uncertainty about who she should become. In a world in which women are constantly reminded to commit to ‘personal growth’ on an endless journey to impossible perfection, Paula’s uncertainty offers an antidote to these narratives of perpetual progress. She might be evolving ‘from a girl to a woman, from an object to a subject’, but this transition is neither an easy or with a clearly defined destination.
The film has been compared to other portraits of rebellious young women that have emerged in recent years, particularly Céline Sciamma’s banlieue-set drama Girlhoodand Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang.Like these films, Jeune Femme is not a story about a lone female protagonist struggling to forge an identity, but a mediation on the need to become oneself with and through other people. In this sense the film also offers a rejection of the ruthless individualism of modern life, presenting intimacy and interpersonal relationships as vital to Paula’s personal growth.
As Ruby Tandoh (who writes beautifully on the pleasures of film food) suggests, the magic that food and cinema share is ‘the ability to transpose something vague – heartbreak, lust, loneliness or fury – from the world of feelings to the world of things’.In Jeune Femme food becomes a shorthand for the value of intimacy in Paula’s struggle to become. The story of Paula’s journey from object to subject could be told solely through the food she eats (or does not eat) in the film. Beginning the narrative as a disconnected wastrel, rooting through bins for half eaten sandwiches and gazing longingly into vending machines teeming with confectionary, Paula’s hunger manifests her inability to care for herself. This is, presumably, the result of a relationship in which she has been controlled and infantilised (‘have you been eating?’ her boyfriend asks, tellingly, when they briefly reconnect in the film’s final third). It is through food that Paula begins to open herself to other people and other ways of being. As Tandoh writes, ‘it’s impossible to be closed to the world and still open your mouth wide for new foods. Every single bite opens us up to the world. No woman is an island, as long as she eats.’ Paula takes food, without qualms, from anyone that shows her enough kindness to offer it. First, from the woman that mistakes her from an old schoolfriend who offers her fresh, crusty bread filled with ham and then buys her some tomatoes (which Paula munches heartily straight from the punnet on a hotel bedspread). Then, from a security guard who offers her a bite of his lovingly homemade lunch straight from the Tupperware. She takes toffees from the doctor who offers her pregnancy advice, stem ginger from the mother of the child she babysits and wine from whatever house party she ends up at come the end of the night. There’s undoubtedly something transgressive about watching a woman consume food with such gusto on screen and a freedom implied in Paula’s canny ability to survive on her openness and charm. In one particularly satisfying shot Paula is shown post-coitus, framed against a burnt orange pillow, her hair a burnished gold like a Burne-Jones portrait, squeezing honey directly into her mouth.
But there’s both a fragility and strength that comes from Paula’s transition from brazen hustler to someone who shares food as a way to express intimacy. In one devastating scene Paula lets herself into the home of her estranged mother, who tries to physically push her out of the house. Paula attaches herself to the bannisters, immovable. In a wordless transition from conflict to connection the women begin what we know is a time-honoured routine. They wash and peel potatoes, finely chop them and then fry them in a heavy based pan. Silently and meticulously they lay the table, sit down, shake the chips into a bowl, serve themselves and begin to eat. For Paula this act of cooking and eating together, a gesture of love and intimacy after ten years of estrangement, is too much to bear and she breaks down in tears- a first step towards reconnection with her mother. In turn Paula becomes the nourisher of Lila, the little girl she babysits. Though Lila is initially hostile towards Paula’s attempts to make pancakes with her, in their first moment of connection Paula offers her a candy floss flavoured lolly-pop. On learning that Lila has never had real candyfloss Paula takes her to try some. This shared experience, the joy of sharing the stick of bright pink candyfloss unites Paula and Lila in a moment of intimate connection that brings Paula’s journey full circle. Her role is not reversed here- she is not just a mother figure or a nourisher. Her journey is more complicated than that. Paula’s transition ‘from object to subject’ has been facilitated by the intimacy that she shares with other people and the food exchange that has facilitated that intimacy.
On reflection, emerging from the cinema with the urge for a chip butty was not so peculiar. Food always represents the ability to translate emotion from the felt world to the real world. Consuming a food of my childhood, often handed to me by loving parents and grandparents, was a means of translating Paula’s journey on screen (from girl to woman, from object to subject) to my real world, facilitating intimacy with Paula and the screen. No woman is an island, as long as she eats.
Jeune Femme (Léonor Serraille, 2017)
Watch on demand at Curzon Artificial Eye
Watch on demand at Curzon Artificial Eye