FILM REVIEW – AN EASY GIRL. With Mina Farid, Zahia Dehar, Benoit Magimel, Nuno Lopez, Riley Lakdhar Dridi. Written by Rebecca Zlotowski and Teddy Lussi-Modeste. Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski. Unrated, but contains profanity, nudity, drug use and sexual situations. 92 minutes.
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Slipped onto Netflix servers with little fanfare last weekend, Rebecca Zlotowski’s AN EASY GIRL might at first glance be mistaken for another of the streaming service’s forays into subtitled sexploitation, a la the recent “MILF” or “365 Days.” But if there’s one thing this movie teaches us it’s that appearances can be deceiving, and Zlotowski’s savvy coming-of-age-story––which screened in the Director’s Fortnight at last year’s Cannes Film Festival––is a work of great sumptuousness and visual sophistication. There’s nothing easy about it at all.
First-time actress Mina Farid stars as Naïma, a mousy, aspiring chef who on her sixteenth birthday receives a surprise visit from her 22-year-old cousin Sofia, played by French Algerian tabloid superstar Zahia Dehar in her first substantial film role. The pneumatically augmented lingerie designer gained notoriety ten years ago in an underage prostitution scandal involving the French national football team, and these days is nicknamed “La Scandaleuse” for her antics in the international press. It’s a clever casting coup for Zlotowski, the only American equivalent I can come up with is maybe a sex-tape era Paris Hilton if she could actually act.
Naïma and her mom live in a modest apartment complex in Cannes, where the latter works as a chambermaid at a luxury hotel. (The film is sharply attuned to the invisible underclass making possible these lifestyles of the rich and famous.) So it isn’t long before these two girls are strutting along the riviera showing off more than their matching Chanel bags. The mysterious Sofia has a way of making men’s eyes pop eyes out of their heads like cartoon characters, her sexuality weaponized to the point of sadism and a source of endless fascination for the young and inexperienced Naïma, who even copies her cousin’s “Carpe Diem” tramp-stamp tattoo.
It doesn’t take much for Sofia to draw the eye of idle Brazilian art collector Andres (Nuno Lopez) who drags his reluctant economic advisor Phillipe (Beniot Magimel) along, following our girls to a nightclub. The older men lavish them with gifts and attention, beginning a ten-day adventure in la dolce vita that eventually becomes an education for young Naïma in the cruelties and complexities of the world. It’s the old “summer that changed my life” story right down to the wistful voice-over, but updated for a modern, mercenary culture.
Everything’s a transaction for Sofia, who claims to her cousin that she desires not love but “sensations and adventure.” She indulges older men with her attention in exchange for what they can provide, with the smart screenplay (by Zlotowski and co-writer Teddi Lussi-Modeste) working in wide-ranging, thematically pertinent discussions of value versus worth, as Phillipe’s appraisals apply not just to the art in Andres’ collection. “An Easy Girl” is many ways a movie about objectification, and these objects don’t come cheap.
Eating an ostentatious meal on the deck of his yacht in full view of passersby, Andres assures an embarrassed Phillipe that people love to see such flagrant displays of wealth, considering them a crucial part of the Cannes landscape. Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois similarly gorges himself on the gilded pleasures and sun-kissed flesh of his extravagant location. The movie is extremely kind to your eyes. But at the same time check out Zlotowski’s sly use of screen direction, repeatedly following Naïma’s descents down spiral staircases and glass elevators. The film’s final, symbolically loaded sight gag is that of an automated boarding walkway slowly retracting back into Andres’ boat, like a handshake withdrawn or (more likely) a withering erection.
Though nobody in the movie would dare say so aloud, it’s clear that Naïma and Sofia being of North African descent puts them another layer removed from the leisure class with which they’re running. In what might be the movie’s most dazzling scene, Sofia endures the condescension of one of Andres’ high society mavens (played by actual real-life princess Clotilde Courau) and passive-aggressively spins the insults back around on the woman to politely devastating effect, mock-innocently deploying her bare breasts as a conversational coup de grace. Easy girls hit back the hardest.
Few films in recent years have depicted class alienation so acutely, with Naïma and Sofia always on the ends of withering glares from servers and the hired help. The screenplay constantly complicates these characters’ loyalties to provocative ends. Despite their outward chumminess and for all his savoir faire, at the end of the day Phillipe is still an employee to Andres. Indeed, there’s an air of acknowledgment in Magimel’s charming, hangdog performance that his invitation to this rarefied world will always be a conditional one. During her brief time there, Naïma will hopefully come to learn that to be free does not mean without value.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality