It’s no exaggeration when I say western coming-of-age movies directed by men broke my brain. It didn’t matter if it had a female protagonist that made it appear more relatable—it always centered on sex, the plot is rooted on sex, the characters are motivated by sex, the story is furthered by sex, the resolution is brought forth by sex. As someone who grew up in a culture that not only repressed but demonized sexuality—especially women’s, especially agentic—despite the ubiquitous presence of sexual exploitation and abuse, after seeing all these movies, of course sex would seem like the answer. It seemed like liberation.
An Easy Girl, on paper, sounds like it belongs perfectly in this category. Just-turned-sixteen Naïma (newcomer Mina Farid), living in Cannes, spends a summer with her elusive older cousin Sofia (Zahia Dehar), whose hedonistic, carefree lifestyle intrigues the tenderfoot teen. American directors wouldn’t know how to act if given free rein on such a premise, but French director Rebecca Zlotowski knew exactly what she wanted to do. Like any other (conventionally attractive) female body on screen, Sofia’s is a commodity, a ticket to social status and luxurious materialism. And that is exactly what Sofia has: she never carries cash, confident that men will always pay; she buys Naïma the most expensive watch available and puts the bill under the tab of the man whose yacht they slept in the night before.
But to say Sofia is merely a victim is not only wrong but borderline insulting. Zlotowski’s camera is more eager to get to know her through Naïma’s eyes—the younger cousin, who is comparatively meeker, is fit as an audience proxy—Naïma is always slightly more fixated on Sofia than the wealthy men they meet. Sofia is intelligent enough to know she has something she can use to get what she wants; she is simply asserting herself in a system not made for her, exercising her agency through the same devices being used to exploit people like her.
This film, like sex, is ultimately about power. Richard Brody, in his review for The New Yorker, observed that it is not just sexual power, but “economic, cultural, and sheerly, mysteriously interpersonal.” Sofia is living in Paris when the movie starts and moving to London when it ends, and it is never revealed what she does for a living despite being explicitly asked. Naïma lives in a modest apartment by the sea with her mother, who works in a nearby luxury hotel. Hedonism is a lifestyle only for the affluent, and for Sofia, her sultry demeanor is her entryway to such a gatekept way of life. Therefore, she cultivates this image of hers, even passing on some of her tips to her novice. She never eats when invited to dinner because she is there to listen and observe. She is pleasant in conversation; she is never overbearing lest the illusion of the perfect cool girl is shattered.
This illusion is there even with Naïma—Sofia is warm as a second-degree older sister, but as soon as she’s unable to put up the act, she drives Naïma away, pleading to be left alone. We only see glimpses of her entire humanity, perhaps as a testament to her aversion to vulnerability as a protective barrier. We learn that Sofia’s mother had just died a year and a half earlier, with her admitting to still feeling grief in a somber conversation with her cousin in their balcony. Those scenes offered a different kind of intimacy, one that is definitely more cathartic than the sexual kind can ever be.
Catering to the male gaze can indeed make you powerful, but it is never a mark of female empowerment. Sofia, who is so hard not to root for, is unhappy, her foray into hypersexuality proving to be ineffective in her quest for liberation; especially since the freedom she seeks is emotional. While the film’s handling of Sofia’s character is worth praise, its greatest strength is her relationship with Naïma. It is such a difficult relationship to nail: the younger, still at the cusp of womanhood, reveres the older simply for being a woman—something she isn’t—messy parts included. Naïma understood who her cousin is and where she’s coming from, and that’s why she remains loyal to her despite being confused by her actions. I was clutching my pearls half the runtime, sure something bad was to happen to young Naïma, but nothing did. She grew, got a glimpse of opulence even just for a summer. In the end, she was where she was supposed to be.
My personal feelings for this movie often fluctuate. The world it built is so hypnotizing, not unlike other films set in the south of France, with the story cascading slowly like honey. Its 90-minute runtime feels like a dream, but by the end it was hard not to be confused by what I just saw. Perhaps, based on the premise, I was expecting something else, something more indulgent like its American counterparts. I didn’t know what to feel for some of the characters, especially the older art advisor befriending Naïma. But it had such a nuanced take on these older women we look up to as kids, an approach that humanizes them but doesn’t dull the glow we always see in them. It also has the most ideal depiction of consent I’ve seen in recent memory—something I didn’t expect to see in a film called “An Easy Girl” (its French title directly translates to “A Simple Girl”)—but then again this movie is no stranger to subverting expectations.
An Easy Girl is streaming on Netflix.