An Easy Girl – Emma, Nana, Zahia…

Rebecca Zlotowski’s new tale, a moral tale about chic and refined  love for sale                                                                                               reinstates and makes a star out of Zahia Dehar.                                                                                                                                                                    But what is it about escorts and courtesans that seduces cinema ?

By Garance Lunven

Reading time 4 min.

An Easy Girl


Many male directors, as well as female directors, fantasize about harlots, and refine them through strass, glitter and big money. Marilyn sung « Diamonds are a girl’s best friend »…A chorus that could just as well be Zahia Dehar’s, who self made her way as a luxury prostitute. Or rather, as a courtesan, as many people on television like to remind us. And when reality meets fiction, you get Rebecca Zlotowski’s new film : An Easy Girl. Zahia performs with verve the part of a young gold digger, and the journalists running after her in Cannes all predict her a beautiful acting career. Is playing yourself on screen genius or a publicity stunt ?

Bum tale

An aura of success floats around An Easy Girl. Rewarded during the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, it was also critically acclaimed by journalists who rightly saw a moral tale that never lectures anyone. As aesthetically pleasing as it is well written, this movie shows the evolution of the perception of prostitution nowadays. Even though the matter remains taboo in real life, the cinema industry proves more than ever its love of night creatures and make them more acceptable for the audience. On the condition that they remain politically correct…In the 90s, there was a rift between Pretty Woman, the Hollywood fantasy, and Showgirls. The former depicts the sex industry as a fairy tale without any pimp, violence or humiliation, but rather filled with shopping sessions (the prerogative of any annoying rom-com), palm trees and a classy Richard Gere. It is not surprising that this movie was better received than Verhoeven’s feature film, trashier and more explicit, which was a commercial flop.

When do you actually become a prostitute ?

Everybody has a price

This story about a stripper trying to make it in Las Vegas, close to a modern Sodom, was criticized mostly because of its vulgarity, which was seen as a controverse stunt. Although it was castigated as misogynistic, some people today establish Showgirls as a feminist manifesto. Indeed, Nomi Malone is a strong female heroine, who uses her charms as well as her blades without any second thought. She falls within the long lineage of female characters from « rape and revenge » movies, just like Thana in Ms .45, Lisbeth Salander in Millenium or Michèle Leblanc in Elles (also directed by Verhoeven). But she also follows the long list of female characters who walk the street. What chocked about Showgirls is the controversial question it asks : when do you actually become a prostitute ?

Bovary vs Nana

Call-girl, escort, sugar baby, and now sex workers… there are many different words with rather unclear borderlines. Even Internet had trouble naming Marina Vacht’s part in Young & Beautiful directed by François Ozon in 2013. This movie offers a bourgeois and modern depiction of prostitution in the era of the sugar daddy phenomenon. Many were put off by his portrayal of a teenager deliberately selling her sexual proposals, shown in a very sterilized and contained manner. She is reminiscent of Séverine ( Catherine Deneuve), who turned into a mondaine prostitute in Belle de Jour (Buñuel, 1967). It is boredom that pushed these heroines  to prostitution, just like mutant daughters of Emma Bovary. Far from the economical issue that we can see in Pretty Woman or Showgirls, these protagonists are similar to Zola’s Nana, to whom Jean-Luc Godard already paid tribute in Vivre Sa Vie, which came out in 1962. That same year, another tribute to Nana was made, when Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released in France, and turned Audrey Hepburn into an American Zola heroine.

 Virgin or whore

Each and everyone of theses movies is confronted to the looming specter of morality hovering over their protagonists, like an outdated tune. When depicted as voluntary,  the topic of prostitution initiates discussions about the rise of a society that bargains relationships, like in Pierre Salvadori’s Hors de prix starring Audrey Tautou. When depicted as forced, it arises more social concerns, like Much Loved, directed by Nabil Ayouch and starring Lubna Adidar, which finally shifted the subject to a less occidental point of view. Steven Soderbergh avoided this pitfall in his tv show The Girlfriend Experience, adapted from his eponymous movie released in 2009. From porn star Sacha Gray in the movie to pop heiress Riley Keough in the first season of the show, any social outlook on the story is blurred. It is not about making her a victim compelled to depravation, nor a vicious seductress. Yet, the viewer — through a judo-christian reflex,  keeps trying to find a psychological vulnerability, a childhood trauma, an unresolved Oedipus complex… Anything that could turn the heroin into a victim and put her back on the sacro-saint path. Less clinical, but just as beautiful, An Easy Girl turns Zahia Dehar into neither the mom nor the whore and makes the duality obsolete. Like magic tricks from directors and directress wishing to deconstruct this stereotype, they have their ups and downs. But more importantly, they always spark a debate.

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