Film Reviews

Young & Beautiful François Ozon

Rating - 7/10

François Ozon's intriguing, perplexing portrait of a young woman, who facilely fits the soap opera-leaning title, purports to obscure notions of voyeurism and coming-of-age familiarities about female sexuality.  Seasonally structured like a play where the bright, free-spirited months fall to more sinister machinations with the possibility of redemption and transcendence in the spring, Young & Beautiful [Jeune & jolie] initially promises to become something self-aware much like Ozon's last obsessive literary puzzle In the House [Dans la maison] (2012).  In its summer act, a double of the seventeen-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) manifests the moment she loses her virginity to exotic German heartthrob Felix (Lucas Prisor) off the beach boardwalk.  This chilling presence stares down at Isabelle whose visage hardly expresses pleasure, only a hint of discomfort and relief.  Instead of venturing into a more psychological duality that sustained Ozon's prior film, Isabelle's doppelgänger merely acts as gentle foreshadowing for the proceeding seasons where she becomes an escort by the name of Lea (her grandmother's name) to exploit and conquer men as a means to not only discover herself but subsequently jar herself from depersonalized hypersexuality.  With the tone of the film measurably linked to her personae, liaisons with her much-older clients can be seen as attempts to break an impassivity.  By definition of the heroine's behavior, Lars Von Trier's recent contentious epic Nymphomaniac (2013) has been seen as a companion film, but a deeper relationship can be traced to Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour (1967).  Catherine Deneuve's character Séverine and Vacth's Isabelle turn to prostitution to indulge a similar compulsion and penchant towards sadomasochism and humiliation, which acts as an alluringly dangerous outlet from the ennui of their everyday existence in the French upper class.  Buñuel outlines Séverine's psychology with a few quick flashbacks amidst her fantasies of bondage, but in Young & Beautiful, Isabelle is presented more enigmatically over the course of the year in her life on the cusp of adulthood, her motivations underexplained besides the fickle fascination with a news report about students hard-pressed for cash.  Truthfully, the answer remains locked away within Vacth's inscrutable eyes.

The unsteady opening iris shot of Isabelle tanning on a beach through the binoculars of her unhealthily curious younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) instills the film with a sense of heightened inquisitiveness, as if it is permitting and preparing its audience to not only share in the boy's gaze but also Isabelle's own forthcoming retaliatory stares.  Throughout its duration, this reflexivity creates a strange tension in each of the environments the teenager inhabits whether as a lackadaisical high school student in jeans and an oversized olive jacket (Lindsay Weir, anyone?) or for hire as Lea, dressed for business in voluptuous make-up, her mother's silk blouse, blazer, and black pumps.  Newcomer Marine Vacth is a transfixing figure to watch in the role where she transforms herself in the blink of an eye; this versatility adds surprising depth.  Ozon, in fact, intended Isabelle to embody the subject of an Arthur Rimbaud poem that surfaces in one of her classes about a quarter of the way through the film.  The scene begins as Isabelle's peers face the camera and take turns reading the stanzas, concluding with the line, "No-one's serious at seventeen when linens line the promenade."  The inclusion of the poem in the autumn months refers directly to the time leading up to her loss of virginity near the beach house with Felix.  However, while the poem warmly frames and extrapolates these times with dose of nostalgic idealism, Isabelle's experience is much more ambiguous and specific, which works against Ozon's intention, accentuating the underlying opacity of perspective.  While the director expresses confidence in her, he moves towards positing sex as a commodity linked with unbearable sadness and death, stripping away stereotypical nostalgia associated with coming-of-age territory.  Lashing out against those who'd dare judge her (perhaps even her own director), Isabelle/Vacth seems to increasingly command the film, adding yet another ambiguous layer, railing against the supposed masochistic tendencies on-screen.  Perhaps Young & Beautiful is best viewed as a Rorschach test, a strange game similar to the one Isabelle considers with the men who request her services by text message.

Outwardly, Isabelle uses monetary transactions to illuminate her moral thought process ("It was simpler, clearer," she explains to a therapist), but it sheds little on her true motivations.  Use of Françoise Hardy's popular songs at the conclusion of summer (L'amour d'un garcon) and winter (Première rencontre) attempt to express what Isabelle refuses to openly confess, either to herself, peers, or authorities; but, much like the Rimbaud poem, the lyrical sentiments are too general, and the moments come over as belonging to a warped, removed Aki Kaurismäki film.  Demeaning remarks thrown at her by some of one of her clients ("Once a whore, always a whore") do little to deter her double life as a high-end prostitute.  "I was disgusted but wanted to try again," she recounts to police, which again speaks to Isabelle's compulsion to engage in humiliating behavior but personal determination to transform her own identity.  While Belle de jour remains a compelling inspiration to Young & Beautiful, Ozon shares a sensibility with Eliza Hittman and her more contemporary film, It Felt Like Love (2013), in which a chameleonic young teen Lila (Gina Piersanti) pursues an older, chauvinistic boy without proper regard for the compromising social situations.  The film ultimately conveys the fragile relationship between humiliation and public persona.  Each film subverts notions of the cautionary tale, as the impartial hands of both directors establish a volatility that is assumed by their young leading actresses; in Hittman's case, it is the fourteen-year-old Piersanti, whose removed stoicism can be likened to the enigmatic expressions of Vacth.  In its epilogue-like spring segment, Ozon's film features an unconventional confrontation between two women separated by multiple generations- the wife, Alice (Charlotte Rampling), of Isabelle's most frequented client, Georges (Johan Leysen).  The scene is instilled with an uncanny suspense, as if Alice could be an aged ghostly surrogate of Buñuel's Séverine.  The juxtaposition provides a sharp glimpse of women's changing face over the past fifty years and a confessional commentary about their societal sexual oppression.  Whether or not the film's seasonal arc appropriately reflects this cathartic moment, Young & Beautiful is nonetheless an arresting vision of psychological liberation or something that more grandly contests the voyeuristic gaze.