Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
Stars: Zahia Dehar, Mina Farid, Benoît Magimel
The low-stakes French film about a summer of love and sexual awakening is, at this point, a subgenre all of it’s own. Comfortable, nostalgic movies that feel like mini holidays all by themselves. Beautiful countryside, beautiful beaches and beautiful people. Male directors incuding Éric Rohmer, François Ozon and countless besides have given their perspectives on such halcyon days; being a certain age and having watershed moments of love and romance.
Just lately, however, a new splinter to this group has started to emerge that inspects these tales more shrewdly from the perspective of the women involved. Isabella Eklof’s Holiday took this to a detached, provocative extreme with its frank examination of the ‘trophy’ girlfriend. Now, Rebecca Zlotowski follows suit, though her picture comes with more warmth, lightly evoking the ‘sweet life’ envisioned by Federico Fellini 60 years ago.
Naïma (Mina Farid) has just turned 16-years-old as her school summer holidays are beginning. She is spending them in the company of her cousin Sofia (Zahia Dehar); a young woman who puts concerted effort into being the titular ‘easy girl’. I remember once reading a write-up of Madonna in Q Magazine that described the pop queen as ‘distilled sex in a sex-shaped container’. Such a leering assessment might well be made of Sofia; improbably beautiful, she maintains an immaculate aura of wealth, success and sexual availability without seeming cheap. Her wardrobe weaponises this intention. She somehow always looks as though her clothes are about to fall off of her.
On Naïma’s arrival, Sofia gifts her a Chanel bag to match her own; a lavish present that impresses her younger familial, charged to the expense account of Sofia’s jet-setting beau, Philippe (Benoît Magimel). Naïma is impressed with the gift and immediately fascinated with the woman before her. Sofia breaks down a stereotype in front of her eyes, revealing just how much effort and calculation goes into being the trophy girlfriend, and the benefits the role bestows. She never carries cash, for instance, belaying a confidence in her ability to get men to cover her expenses. Is it shallow materialism or a more pragmatic case of exploiting the exploiters?
To begin with Naïma finds Sofia to be a caricature. When she first sees Sofia’s tramp-stamp tattoo – “Carpe diem” – Zlotowski shows us her mocking eyes. Yet by midway through the picture Naïma has gotten one to match, paid for with the birthday money given to her by her surely-gay boyfriend Dodo (Lakdhar Abidar) with whom she has, unsurprisingly, a particularly sexless on-off relationship. Dodo sulks as he her intended her to use the money differently. Naïma counters, with a new sense of self-confidence inherited from her cousin, that since the money was a gift she can do whatever she likes with it.
Yet the getting of this tattoo doesn’t mark the beginning of Naïma’s attempts to copycat Sofia. She is of a different temperament entirely. Rather, it is like the act of a fan in awe of the object of their affection. A brand of loyalty and admiration.
An Easy Girl differs from the mold set by most summer-of-love movies in that it’s protagonist, Naïma, remains a passive observer. The wilder, sexually liberate antics are left to her cousin. Zlotowski probes the idea that one can experience a revelatory awakening by proxy, in observing the exploits of another. This is, of course, what we are all doing by watching such films. It’s a very subtle commentary that creates a prickly feeling in the film. It comes alive in different ways. Naïma is our eye into the story but she is also our mirror. When we watch her spying on Sofia having sex, we’re both eager to see and aware that we ourselves have been placed in the film. We feel we judge her… but also ourselves. It’s spicy.
Zlotowski’s filmmaking is superb throughout. Judicious, rather than precious. She selects what we see and how we see it; the female gaze can be every bit as hungry as the male. She also leans into the sense of enjoyment we want from a film like An Easy Girl. Balmy evenings of jazz and food are enjoyed leisurely, conversation flows. Coastal waters are clear and sparkling. That Fellini mood is encouraged, without the extra push into the carnivalesque. Her film exists in a heat-haze of post-coital contentment and reviving excitement.
A montage of moments at the film’s end might seem superfluous, but part of the summer-of-love movie’s very being is the sense of near-sighted nostalgia in the experiences documented. Of reminiscing. Naïma will remember these weeks for the rest of her life. Similarly, and thankfully, Zlotowski has crafted a small film that unfurls into something larger in our minds. Meanwhile, I can almost hear the clacking of keys as newly acquainted men and women start thirstily Googling Zahia Dehar, a fashion designer and model whose own background adds a loaded weight to her appearance in this role.
(An Easy Girl has arrived in the UK on Netflix, but make sure you tweak the settings so that the film plays in it’s original French with English subtitles. The streaming service’s assumption that English audiences would prefer a clumsy dub is maddening.)