By Gerald Peary
So what’s up with the 16-year-old Naima, who has been mostly watching and listening? Is it time for her to become an “adult”?
It’s hard to realize it, but regular people reside in Cannes with regular lives, having nothing to do with the glam film festival. Rebecca Zlatkowski’s feature, An Easy Girl, which premiered — ironically? — in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2019 fest, is about such a person. She’s Naima (Mina Farik), a Cannes high school girl who, at the beginning of the movie, turns 16 and is given by her friends an impromptu little birthday celebration. There’s a croissant with a lit candle pushed inside the dough. Naima is hardly rich yet lives easily, and without jealousy, among the well-heeled all about her. Her mother is a domestic in a glassed-in apartment on a hill looking down on the azure Mediterranean waters. Naima walks about that apartment as if she could be an owner.
Nothing is ever mentioned about it in the movie, but Naima and her mother are seemingly North African. This isn’t touched on but, though Naima is sharp, quick, and intelligent, her choices for the future perhaps aren’t the same as for the prosperous French on the Riviera. She says nothing about university but has some aspirations to go to cooking school to become a chef. A less thought-out ambition: she signs on with her gay best friend, Dodo, to audition together for theater school.
That’s the setup for this airy, beguiling, and only slightly troubling story of what happens to Naima in Cannes over several summer weeks after she’s become 16. The catalyst for change is the arrival for a stay of her 22-year-old cousin from Paris. Sofia couldn’t be more different from the sensible, rational, head-on-straight Naima, who has broken up recently with a boyfriend and is satisfied being alone for a time. Sofia is unbridled sexuality, hanging out of her clothes, showing off her bare breasts to whatever male comes by. She declares, “I’m not interested in love, only sensations and adventure.” She carries no money with her because she expects men to pay for everything. Sofia invites Naima to join in her carousing.
If you are French watching this movie, there is a heated subtext to it all. Sofia is played by Zahi Dehar, an Algerian-born model and fashion influencer, who is infamous for, in 2010, almost bringing down France’s World Cup team. Several of the star soccer players were accused of paying her for sex when she was an underage 16. Dehar not only recovered from the scandal but became a celebrity after. Frankly, it’s hard to understand her appeal, with her fake tan and piled-on makeup, her surgically enhanced face shaped to make her look like sex kitten Brigitte Bardot.
For whatever reason, Naima has a strong affection for her big city cousin and accompanies her to discos and to the beach, where Sofia flirts with every adolescent young boy. But Sofia’s real summer interlude begins when she catches the eye of a 30ish bearded Brazilian art dealer, Andre (Nuno Lopes). It’s two narcissists and sensualists looking in the mirror. He smiles, obviously enjoying his good looks, the coolness signified by his playing samba guitar, and his consummate wealth. He invites the cousins aboard his supersize yacht lazing in the harbor, one peopled by a live-in staff. It’s a fun night for Sofia, having very hot sex with handsome Andre. It’s a contemplative one for Naima, who walks into the room and secretly observes them copulating. What does she think about it? She doesn’t say. She retreats to a couch and falls asleep for the night.
For several days after that, Andre doesn’t call. Do we see a slight crack in Sofia’s glib, confident façade? But then Andre comes through, and takes them on an enthralling day trip across the Mediterranean to an island off of Italy. There’s a fabulously loaded and entitled woman who lives there named Calypso. Is that a warning (from The Odyssey) to watch out for her treachery? She is appalled by the déclassé relationship of Sofia and Andre, but she takes it out all on Sofia. At an outdoor lunch at her estate, Sofia blurts out that she loves the books of Marguerite Duras. But then she waffles about which she loves, evading giving titles. Filmmaker Zlotowski stretches credibility by having Sofia suddenly surprise everyone by talking about her affection for Duras’s The War: A Memoir, but even more of The Lovers. I’m with Calypso here: this sex-obsessed material girl is no way a reader.
So what’s up with Naima, who has been mostly watching and listening? Slowly her eyes start going to Andre’s best friend, Philippe, a soft-spoken businessman in his 40s. Is it time for her to become an “adult”? And for An Easy Girl to darken? For the title of the movie to apply to not one girl but both of them?
You can find out by watching on Netflix, which, so rare these days, is actually offering a worthwhile movie.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.