Young & Beautiful (Jeune et Jolie)
We first see Isabelle (Marine Vacth), the teenaged heroine of French director François Ozon’s latest filmYoung & Beautiful, from a distance, shown through binoculars. We watch, through the eyes of some unknown pervert, we suppose, as she lays down a towel on a deserted stretch of beach in the French Riviera, and slowly unhooks her top.
In some strange and fascinating ways, we never completely get any closer to the impassive teen than we do in this shot. In other ways, despite her blank repose and emotional distance, she is exposed to us in much rawer ways than in this first encounter.
It is part of the complex and unexpected course of this film that it turns out the pervert with the binoculars was not a pervert at all, it was her prepubescent brother (Fantin Ravat). While the boy is fascinated in his sister’s budding sexuality, it isn’t in a sexual way so much as in a more egocentric way. His older sister is taking the trip into puberty before him and he wants to follow her sign posts and missteps to ready himself for his own soon-to-come sexuality.
In the meantime, a passionless first time with a young German traveler so disillusions Isabelle that when she goes back to Paris with her family for senior year, she takes a huge, life changing step of becoming an internet call girl. Unlike most films, no explanation is attempted as to her motivation into this extreme course.
Likely Isabelle herself does not know. She does not need the money, her parents are quite well off and all her money goes into a bag in her closet. She does not particularly seem to enjoy the sex. She does not like the company of many of the men, most of whom are significantly older than her and often dismissive of her. She is forced to hide her side profession from both her family and school friends. The only explanation Isabelle can even start to articulate is that she got caught up in the adventure and danger of the situation.
If you’ve followed Ozon’s fascinating career, you’d know from films like Swimming Pool, 8 Women, Under the Sand and In the House, life is never so black and white that you can easily understand a character’s motivations. In Isabelle, the writer/director creates another one of his intriguing ciphers.
Young & Beautiful is broken into four seasonal sections, starting in summer and ending in spring. Each section shows a different layer of Isabelle’s journey into womanhood and the dark side, and eachsegment is soundtracked by an appropriate pop song by 1960s French pop chanteuse Françoise Hardy. (I don’t know if this is simply a coincidence, but lead actress Vacth actually looks quite a bit like Hardy did back in her heyday.)
In an odd way, Ozon is able to achieve what Lars von Trier recently fumbled in Nymphomaniac: showing a young woman who believes she grows power through wanton sex. It hardly seems to matter that she does not appear to enjoy either the sex or even the power very much.