Losin' It, Ozon-Style

Young & Beautiful (Jeune & jolie)
(France, 95 min.)
Written and directed by François Ozon
Starring: Marine Vacht, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Fantin Ravat, Johan Leysen, Charlotte Rampling.
Marine Vacht (Isabelle) in Jeune & Jolie. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
How funny is it that Young & Beautiful is basically a feature film version of the song “Young and Beautiful” that Lana Del Rey sings as the Daisy theme in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby? Young & Beautiful, a worthwhile, if mildly disappointing offering from  director François Ozon after the spectacular In the House (which made this blog’s list of the BestFilms of 2013), and “Young and Beautiful” both tell of girls who’ve seen the word, done it all, and had their cake now. They’ve enjoyed the world as their stage on summer nights, but youth fades and both tales end by asking how men view women when they’ve reached their golden years. By the time one is Charlotte Rampling with grey hair and nothing but her aching soul, youth and beauty don’t seem like hot commodities. The saucy Young & Beautiful is a François Ozon film, though, so it’s inevitable that the great Miss Rampling will reign over some hot young thing, but it’s fascinating to watch the director play newcomer Marine Vacht like a child in this unnerving tale of lost innocence.

Isabelle (Vacht) is only sixteen years old when she enjoys a summer vacation on the sunny beaches of France. Isabelle, at sweet sixteen, is ready to stop being an innocent, so after a few days of sunbathing topless and a few nights of grinding her pillow, both under the creepy gaze of her little brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), Isabelle decides to take the next step. There is, however, a difference to losing one’s virginity in a summer fling and losing it François Ozon style.

Ozon is gentlest with Isabelle’s first time as he presents the first of Young & Beautiful’s many sex scenes. Isabelle scores with a German vacationer named Felix (Lucas Prisor) on the pebbles of the beach after sharing some ice cream. It might be the most artful and tastefully done scene of Isabelle’s sexual odyssey, for she removes herself from the moment in an Annie Hall-ish out –of-body experience. The audience watches Isabelle watch herself as she observes a German bum bob up and down as whatever’s underneath thrusts her into a new stage of womanhood. Ozon’s direction marks from the outset pleasures of watching and of being watched, but, more importantly, Isabelle’s first time marks a pleasure of holding authority over how people see her as a sexual being.

Isabelle thinks she grows up quickly thanks to the experience, and she quickly tires of Felix as the summer ends. Come autumn—Ozon marks the seasons with title cards—Isabelle struts the streets of Paris as a high-priced call girl named Lea. Her inexperience should betray her at every turn, for her first act of onscreen prostitution sees her timidly approach the client (Johan Leysen) like a quivering lamb. She studies internet porn in between gigs to research how she thinks men like to see woman behave sexually, and she learns the delicate art of faking it when she mimics the porn star moaning and a client directs her to “act naturally.” She’s young and beautiful, though, so the horny old sugar daddies find her childish naïveté attractive.

The film also carries a deliciously subtle hint of prudishness and propriety as the characters’ attitudes towards sex are implied throughout the film. “Once a whore, always a whore,” says one of Lea’s clients following a parking lot tryst, and Ozon finds an underlying layer of dark humour within the virgin/whore dichotomy when people close to Isabelle learn of her profession. Young & Beautiful contrasts the ways in which men and women perceive themselves and each other as sexual beings, and the subtleties of the film—the casual glances and the things that go both said and unsaid—reveal the underlying double standards in sexual attitudes circa 2014. The peculiarly bipolar—almost implausibly so—way that Isabelle’s mother (Géraldine Pailhas, notably strong) and stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) deal with her profession is the most telling. The fact that Isabelle remains a minor during her stint as a sex worker goes almost unacknowledged by her friends and family, yet their actions treat her as if she’s been branded with the scarlet letter and the johns who pay her are blameless.

Vacht, a few years older than the minor she plays, carries much of the film with her detached and subtle performance. The film relies heavily on the physicality of her performance—how she carries her petite frame both in the bedroom and outside it—and the innocuous aloofness of her performance lends the film ample credibility. The maturity of her performance works best in Isabelle’s final onscreen appointment with an elderly, but gracefully beautiful, female client (Charlotte Rampling), who subtly teaches her to the true art of seduction. Isabelle doesn’t even need to take her clothes off.

Ozon finds himself back in Swimming Pool territory with another salacious, but comparatively less satisfying, episode of erotica. Isabelle’s stage of learning the tricks of her trade and of becoming confident in her sexual prowess is an ingeniously realized continuation of the play on watching/being watched that Ozon establishes during Isabelle’s first sex scene. The voyeurism of Young & Beautiful—a great staple of the Ozon oeuvre—comes to life through the lingering and observational cinematography by Pascal Marti, which both observes Isabelle through a decidedly male gaze and assumes her perspective as the camera trolls around corners and behind pillars as she watches the older, more experienced people around her take note of her unmistakable sex appeal. The way people look at this underage girl seems undeniably creepy, but, for better or for worse, Ozon makes their looks feel empowering too.

Isabelle/Lea dives into a series of sexual escapades with little visible interest in the sex she’s having. It’s purely a transaction for her, although Ozon and Vacht present the young woman as a bored, frustrated adolescent without guidance or ambition. There is something vacant to both Vacht’s performance and to the film itself, which seems wholly intentional given Isabelle’s jejune attitude to sex, but Young & Beautiful struggles to offer more than an edgy tale of sexual awakening.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Young & Beautiful screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until June 30th.