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Meet the new double act of French cinema

Lonor Serraille and Laetitia Dosch are the director and star of Jeune Femme, a Cannes prize-winning comedy about a young woman trying to stay afloat in Paris. Here, the pair discuss eccentrics, Greta Gerwig and being able to bounce back

Two years ago, a striking image appeared on the April 2016 cover of the esteemed French film magazine Cahiers du Cinma. It was of a young woman with red hair swept across her forehead in unkempt strands, and a cartoonish curly moustache etched in eyeliner on her upper lip, with the caption, Cinma Franais: Vive les Excentriques! The picture, illustrating a feature on a tradition of oddballs in French film, was from Jeune Femme, a feature in the works from a new female director, Lonor Serraille.

The film itself didnt emerge for a whole year after that, but when it premiered in Cannes last May, Jeune Femme lived up to the advance exposure. Audiences loved it, the film won the Camra dOr for best debut feature, and critics raved about the positively nuclear performance of its lead, Laetitia Dosch. She plays Paula, a woman whose older boyfriend has abruptly dumped her. Paula begins the film raging at him through the locked door of his Paris apartment block, bashes her head against the door, then further vents her spleen at the medic tending her forehead. At least shes free now, he suggests: Freedoms for egotistical pricks! she spits back.

Described this way, Jeune Femme could sound harrowing; but while it has its dark moments, its extremely funny and, yes, certainly eccentric. The Cahiers cover pic shows Paula at a fancy dress party that shes gatecrashed by wrapping her hair around the inside of a toilet roll and going as Amy Winehouse. The moustache turns up later as an unexplained addition.

Much of the publicity around the film has pitched Serraille, 32, and Dosch, 37, as a duo, effectively as adoptive sisters: one photo has them in matching red polo necks, striking identical poses. They were supposed to operate as a team when they came to London in last month, but when I arrived to interview them at a central London hotel, I found a nervous Serraille watching the clock, as she had to return to Paris early; meanwhile, Dosch hadnt arrived because her Eurostar was held up. In the end they barely got to say hello as they crossed paths in the lobby: a farcical setup they could use if they ever make a sequel, Jeunes Femmes.

Laetitia Dosch (left) and Lonor Serraille photographed in London last month for the Observer. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

They immediately strike you as complementary opposites. Dosch turns up in a loose, hippy-ish red top and speaks fast and raucously, occasionally bursting into spontaneous laughter. Serraille, in contrast, has a high, quiet voice, wears tight black and sits hunched, with her arms wrapped round herself. Its only after a while that I notice she is several months pregnant; shes expecting a second child, having given birth to a daughter four months after shooting the film. Serraille is so completely unlike Paula that of course you cant help asking whether, on some level, the character really is her.

Paulas like my double in reverse, Serraille laughs. Thats what was exciting. I only realised once the film was out that Id created a character whos the total opposite of me, and the way I approach life and people. Im a lot more introverted, so writing the film was a sort of liberation.

Nevertheless, she and Paula have experiences in common not the breakup, not the living in cheap hotels, but certainly the frustrating episodes of employment, notably as a babysitter and as an assistant on an underwear counter.

I worked for a very big lingerie brand in a massive knicker outlet, says Serraille, who like Paula got the gig after having to enthuse fulsomely in her job interview. The bigger the lies, the better it goes down. Who cares about the brand? You just want a basic wage, but they want to hear, Im passionate about the product, all that crap I needed to turn it into comedy, because at the time it was hard going.

Watch the official trailer for Jeune Femme.

Also hard going was Serrailles initial experience of Paris. Originally from Lyon, she moved to the capital at 18 and studied comparative literature at the Sorbonne, later enlisting at La Fmis, the citys prestigious film school. In the film Paula complains: Paris is a city that doesnt like people, and the young Serraille felt the same way. Every door was shut; you had to fight all the time, she says. It made me feel that the city didnt want anything to do with me but that can also give you a certain strength.

When Serraille wrote Jeune Femme, she didnt have anyone in mind to play Paula, but felt that it shouldnt be a known face. Then she remembered seeing Dosch. Before making a mark as the lead in Justine Triets 2013 comedy Age of Panic, the French-Swiss performer had worked across a range of theatre and dance, with experimental Spanish choreographer La Ribot and writing and directing her own shows. Dosch turned out to be exactly who Serraille was looking for: I felt that she was at once totally the character, and not the character at all. When I write a script, I can be a bit precious, so I need someone wholl come in and blow the whole thing apart.

Overall, the film was tightly scripted, but Dosch has a few moments of inspired improvisation. She prepared for the role partly by walking around the city in character. I wanted to know how she looked at people, she says. Shes like an animal alone in Paris, like a rat or something. She looks straight at people a bit too much. I wanted people to think, Who is she? Has she just stolen something? I trained myself to look suspicious! says Dosch, and bursts into a huge, throaty laugh. It sounds a bit like the way David Thewlis turned himself into the outsider, Johnny, in Mike Leighs Naked. Yes, hes un peu cockroach, Dosch says, mixing her languages. I wanted Paula to have a touch of cockroach too.

What she and Serraille didnt want was for Paula to be in English again too wacky girl. Wacky like Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbachs Frances Ha, to which Jeune Femme has widely been compared? Cest a, says Dosch. I dont like that film too much. Serraille isnt a fan of the film either, although she admires Gerwigs acting. There are too many movie references in it, and things work out too easily for the character lifes not like that.

Nothing works too easily for Paula, thats for certain, including her relations with women like the ostensibly chummy young mother who hires her as a babysitter. Its that whole thing of: Oh, were women well get on very well oh no, actually we wont, because youre my employee, says Serraille. I wanted to show that things can go badly among women too.

Laetitia Dosch as Paula in Jeune Femme. Photograph: Curzon

But most of all, Paula has to endure some grisly men one who paws her at a party, laying on the bogus sensitivity. Youve been crying. That touches me, he simpers. Go and touch yourself! she snaps back.

You might say Jeune Femme is slightly ahead of its time, as its Cannes premiere came five months before the Weinstein revelations: Paulas experience, and her response to it, makes this a perfect film for the #MeToo era.

All I know, says Serraille, is that I needed this woman to be able to take care of herself whatever happened. Theres a message there: that even if everythings broken, you can rebuild it again. Its important for women and men to be able to feel that.

But its true that, given everything thats happened since, I now read the film differently. I know a lot of women who have never been beaten or raped, but feel comfortable being in a state of submission to men. The thing about Paula is that she chooses to leave her comfort zone. She chooses discomfort.

While not a huge commercial success domestically, Jeune Femme has put Dosch and Serraille on the map, together and separately. Serraille is working on the script for her next film, although she hasnt yet decided which project to commit herself to it will be either a study of a male character, or a thriller; shes also co-writing the directing debut of Jeune Femmes cinematographer Emilie Noblet.

As for Dosch, British audiences will see her in October when she comes to the Barbican theatre, London, in an adaptation of Marguerite Durass novella La Maladie de la Mort, directed by Katie Mitchell and reworked by playwright Alice Birch. She also has another personal project in the works. Im writing a play called Hate or it could be Hte in French [meaning haste]. A woman is naked on stage with a horse, and she wants to have a child with it. There are songs, poems, the horse speaks Dosch bursts out laughing again. On her crowdfunding page, she describes Hate as a crazy project for crazy times.

Vive les excentriques, quoi.

Jeune Femme is released on 18 May

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/may/05/meet-the-new-double-act-of-french-cinema-jeune-femme-leonor-serraille-laetitia-dosch

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