An intellectually stimulating art-house treasure all too easily overlooked amid the near-constant flood of Netflix content, “An Easy Girl” depicts a transformative summer in the life of a 16-year-old girl, but not the one described in the film’s title. That label — which writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski employs ironically, calling into question the patriarchal idea that a woman’s worth is tied up in how “hard to get” she plays it — refers to the protagonist’s 22-year-old cousin, no girl at all, but a comely temptress who breezes into the coastal French city of Cannes like a seductive tropical storm, turning heads and jostling perceptions wherever she goes.
Shifting gears from her widely panned “Planetarium” (also on Netflix, largely ignored despite Natalie Portman’s involvement), Zlotowski delivers a relatively modest but far more thought-provoking project — a Rohmerian moral tale, à “La Collectionneuse,” with a shrewd feminist twist. It’s at once a striking auteur statement (launched during Director’s Fortnight at Cannes last year) and a tawdry tease for those subscribers looking for some virtual excitement to get them through their long nights of isolation.
Yes, this sun-kissed portrait boasts ample skin and explicit sex, but unlike such tacky streaming hits as “365 Days” and “Milf,” which proved that people will endure subtitles when the reward is steamy enough, this is quite an intelligent and insightful film. With any luck, unsuspecting audiences might come away with their prejudices slyly challenged, starting with their notions of what constitutes a suitable leading lady.
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For the role of Sofia, Zlotowski approached D-list celebrity Zahia Dehar, a former escort who was thrust into the public eye amid a tabloid scandal whereby several members of the French soccer team were caught up in a messy prostitution bust. Dehar, who was underage at the time, managed to turn the infamy to her advantage, using the attention to launch a modeling and lingerie career. Whereas that casting decision might seem like a bad-taste stunt to some — the way John Waters takes delight in tapping nonactors like Traci Lords and Patty Hearst — it turns out to be an inspired notion, here played for pathos rather than camp.
With her exaggerated plastic surgery — which bypasses “bee-stung” and goes straight for a swollen, “attacked by murder hornets” look — and ambivalent attitude about on-screen nudity, the French Algerian personality comes across both alluring and aloof, seemingly indifferent to our scrutiny. That’s precisely the point. Popular culture can be vicious toward women like Sofia, who flaunt their re-sculpted assets in thongs and see-through skirts, while missing what her cousin Naïma (Mina Farid) sees: an empowered, self-confident woman who’s proud of her sex appeal and fully in control of her influence over men.
The idealized memories that comprise “An Easy Girl” are presented from Naïma’s perspective, which explains her still-childish naiveté and the unconditional admiration she feels for Sofia. Whereas the local guys lob insults when Sofia doesn’t give in to their weak pickup tactics, the movie withholds judgment. Naïma can’t help feeling impressed. She views her older cousin as a role model, rethinking her own plans — an aspiring chef, Naïma skips out on an important apprenticeship — to tag along for an enchanted fortnight of yacht rides and expensive dates. One such dinner affords Naïma the chance to eat at the upscale hotel where her mother works as a maid, stirring up conflicted feelings of pride and shame, which Zlotowski evokes with minimal narration.
Compared with the somber, heavy TV series, “Savages,” the director shot just after this film, “An Easy Girl” feels buoyant and carefree, as DP Georges Lechaptois’ bright, flattering cinematography is whisked along by jazz (John Coltrane) and classical (Franz Schubert) pieces on a soundtrack that invites us to participate in the film’s “Pretty Woman” fantasy. But Sofia is no working girl. She’s merely living up to the “Carpe Diem” tattoo on her lower back, rejecting love (“What did your last relationship bring you?”) in favor of sensation and adventure.
She catches the eye of a handsome, wealthy stranger (Nuno Lopez) and invites herself aboard his boat, bringing Naïma and her gay best friend Dodo (“Riley” Lakdhar Dridi) along for the experience. Dodo disapproves, but Naïma doesn’t let that rupture her fascination with Sofia’s behavior. At night, she spies on her cousin, witnessing porny sexual acts that might have been shocking had director Abdellatif Kechiche not gone much further in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” the same year Zlotowksi’s “Grand Central” (the superior Léa Seydoux movie) premiered at Cannes. With its emphasis on the dynamics of flirtation and coupling among voluptuous French Algerian youth, “An Easy Girl” has more in common with Kechiche’s controversial “Mektoub, My Love” movies. But Zlotowski doesn’t objectify her characters nearly to that degree — this despite numerous scenes in which Dehar knowingly bares her body.
The movie presents Sofia as more sophisticated than she lets on. She knows better than to shatter others’ idea of her by opening her mouth. That would break the spell. However, when invited to a private luncheon across the border in Italy with the elegant Calypso (played by actor and princess Clotilde Courau), the geisha-like young lady coyly holds her own against the impertinent host in a scene that suggests what Zlotowski intuited about Dehar: that she could be deeper than people give her credit for. It’s not easy being easy, the movie concludes, before tying things up a bit too conservatively. Ultimately, “An Easy Girl” challenges what society thinks of those who leverage their desirability as Sofia does, leaving intriguing questions about one’s values — and value — in her wake.