What happens when you lose everything? You just start again. You start all over again.
The first time we see Paula she’s repeatedly ramming her head against a door.
It soon emerges, via an epic rant delivered to the doctor treating her head wound, that she’s broken up with her no-good man, with whom she’s spent 10 years in Mexico. This has left her homeless and aimless. She’s no job, no friends, and nowhere to go. But she’s got a beautiful fluffy white cat, and together they roam the streets of Paris in search of a place to sleep.
There needs to be a name for films like this. Paula’s too old for this to be a coming-of-age film, yet too young for her spiralling to be described as a midlife crisis. It’s not even a quarter-life crisis. What we see is a member of a lost generation at her most lost. It’s a millennial search for meaning; an exploration of a terrifying prospect for everyone of a certain age: What would you do if you suddenly lost everything that ever gave your life meaning? Do you have people to turn to? A back-up plan? What if it’s too late to start again?
Paula is told a few times that her position is enviable. She bristles when people describe her as a “free woman”. Because she most definitely is not. She’s cut her ties and she’s freewheeling, but she definitely isn’t free. Every man she talks to appears to be a manipulative sleaze; every woman seems to hold her in contempt. She’s totally broke, and forced to sell everything she owns and to take whatever job is available. But at least she’s got her cat.
So it’s the tale of a spirited young woman whose impulsive nature often causes her to make decisions that are, shall we say, a tad counter-productive. She’s sparring with her mother, she’s haunted by her past, and she’s driven to retain her independence and her self-respect at all costs. Think of a French Fleabag, but with a more languid pace and a subtler sense of humour, and you’re basically there.
Some of the people Paula encounters seem to act as teasing reminders of the lives she could have lived had she not wasted a decade on her slimeball photographer ex. She’s prepared to take on any identity and spin any number of falsehoods in exchange for some form of connection and security. Yet she’s endlessly resilient, and constantly looking for the small joys in whichever situation she finds herself.
The film opens at rock bottom, with an ugly glimpse of Paula’s absolute lowest point. And while it’s not quite the case that the only way is up from that point, things never feel so desperate again. Indeed, the saddest part of the whole film comes during a scene where it seems Paula’s on the verge of regaining the comfort, support, and security she’s been searching for. With a distant look, she mutters about feeling nostalgic for things that never even happened. And with this, all the yearning looks we’ve seen, and all the vague references to lives never lived, take on a whole new poignancy.
Laetitia Dosch’s central performance is astounding. Paula is fully-realised – consistently engaging, believably flawed and endlessly endearing. The last time we see her, if anything she has even less going for her than when she started. But having spent 97 minutes in her company, we know she’s a survivor. We know that she’s got this.