François Ozon tiptoes gracefully through a minefield in 'Young & Beautiful', the story of a 17-year-old girl, Isabelle (former model Marine Vacth), from a comfortable Parisian background, who decides to become a high-class prostitute in between school and negotiating the normal ups and downs of family life. Isabelle isn't poor; there's no obvious evidence of abuse; and any problems she has at home are common enough.
And yet, from the film's early scenes, when Isabelle discusses a holiday fling with her pre-teen brother, rejecting the intimacy of a real romance, we realise that something is seriously wrong when it comes to sex, her body and her relationships with men. It's a sit-up-and-watch premise as Isabelle launches herself into a series of paid-for encounters in hotel rooms with much older men – but one that Ozon only scratches at the surface of, taking an approach that flits between soft and severe.
It's to Ozon's credit that he never serves up easy answers, and even after ample scenes of sex and showdowns with those closest to Isabelle, and even a scene with a psychologist, we're none the wiser as to what's driving her. Such openness is welcome, and it puts great emphasis on Vacth's performance – and on the film as a character study – as we strain to read her behaviour, her few words, even the look in her eyes. It's goes without saying that Vacth's embrace of the frank and frequent sex scenes is bold and brave. But she offers more than this. There's a steeliness in her eyes, tempered by vulnerability, that's deeply saddening. She's hard and experienced beyond her years; but she's also lost and deeply unhappy. A scene late at night with her stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) is uncomfortable and upsetting as she brings home the superficial charm she uses to win over clients. Her testy relationship with her understanding, if distracted, mother (Géraldine Pailhas) is skillfully drawn and quietly unknowable.
But this welcome openness is contradicted by other decisions that Ozon makes. The film's four-season structure – we move from summer to spring – is suffocating and squeezes complex ideas into an over-simple framework. The songs that mark the change of seasons are trite and obvious ('The little girl you knew is no more,' offers one, bluntly), and other attempts to counter Isabelle's opacity, such as her classmates reciting the French poet Rimbaud, feel similarly forced.
Pleasingly, Ozon upends a late episode with a new boyfriend in which it feels like matters are being wrapped up far too cleanly and neatly. But then, an even later appearance in a small role by Charlotte Rampling as the wife of one of Isabelle's clients is simply strange and impossible to believe. At a fatal juncture, it distracts attention from the film's important questions and from Vacth's noble attempts to address them with a subtlety and a confidence that marks the arrival of a genuine new star.
|Release date:||Friday November 29 2013|
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Delicate portrait of beautiful teenager trying to figure out what man-woman relationships are really about. Marine Vacth is super.
Although it may have its flaws this is a rich and complex film which repays careful viewing. Ozon is far more subtle than Dave Calhoun (for TO) gives him credit for. (N.B. there will be some spoilers her so rather than read this why not just go to see the film, it is really worth your while). Isabelle is an enigma to begin with but, although there may not be easy answers here there are plenty of reasons for her behaviour which begin to show themselves as the story unfolds; indeed, part of the pleasure of watching is the piecing together of the puzzle of our protagonist's psychology. We open with a voyeuristic view through binoculars, telling us that that (as they would say in film studies) this is very much about the male gaze, and we are concerned as much with what others think about Isabelle as we are with what she thinks about herself. In fact, everyone has an opinion about what she should be or do, which is what makes coming of age so very difficult. Her pubescent younger brother, who held the binoculars, knows the score; there are rules here that Isabelle is supposed to conform with and they are carefully policed by those around her. One illustration of this is through the motif of what she does with her lips. Her brother tells her that too much lipstick makes her look like a whore - but later he chastises her for trying to leave the house without any at all. After an assignation with a client she descends into the subway against the backdrop of a giant pair of painted lips, society's view of the feminine that she is trying so hard to navigate. This is the tightrope that is walked by all teens and the particular challenges faced by teenage girls are explored here with unusual deftness. The whole film can be taken as a slightly anarchic riposte to glib accounts of growing up. This is why the music choices that Calhoun criticizes are not a mistake, Ozon would not be so crude. They are an ironic commentary, thumbing their nose at the pat psychology of lesser films; Isabelle has had sex, now she is a woman! Of course not, she continues to struggle to find and form an identity, in the face of very mixed messages from the world around her. In this modern age she has porn, of course, and easy access to mobile phones when she wants to set up in business as a prostitute. She also has the lax and conflicted moral guidance of her mother, herself unfaithful to her new husband, and a stepfather who thinks it no surprise Isabelle is treated like a whore because she is pretty. For much of the film the question of Isabelle’s father is elided but it becomes increasingly clear that it is a significant one. Ozon’s sophistication as a storyteller is that these threads are left loose for us to weave together, not neatly summarized. The client who begins to rouse (for perhaps the first time that we witness) some semblance of affection in Isabelle is much older, a father figure. When she is cheated out of her earnings by a punter, she decides to raise her prices, and the figure that she believes shows her true worth? 500 euros, the same amount she later reveals is paid to her by her absent father as a regular gift. These details do begin to add up to a rich profile of Isabelle’s interior life, though you have to be patient to see it, and it is immensely rewarding when you do. Dave Calhoun thinks her family circumstances are ‘common enough’, too common to be considered an explanation for her engagement with prostitution. To pathologize Isabelle (“something is seriously wrong when it comes to sex, her body and her relationships with men… we are none the wiser as to what is driving her”) is too easy, however. Perhaps everyone does have similar problems, and perhaps also they deserver to be explored in this much detail. Through his sympathetic and detailed narrative Ozon ultimately gives Isabelle her own voice, which becomes strident enough to override the chorus – including Rimbaud – who all think they know exactly what it is to be 17, in love or not.
”… there's no obvious evidence of abuse; and any problems she has at home are common enough …” Isabel (Lea) is bored stiff and gets into this as many people do these days, as did Andrew Weiner, by being seduced into virtual reality sexuality which becomes real life. Her classmates are boring and it is clear she wants adventure and something more, which she finds with the older man, Georges. This is clear when she goes back to a teenage party, and once again, out of boredom, decides to vamp on a classmate, whom she really has no interest in. There is nothing “ ….seriously wrong when it comes to sex, her body and her relationships with men … “ she’s bored and looking for adventure, which the high school crowd doesn’t supply. It’s obvious that at 3-500 euros a trick, she is not likely to find much besides “ … paid-for encounters in hotel rooms with much older men …” who has the money, her teenage colleagues. The teenage boys who can afford the prostitutes are looking for them at the local supermarket, and on the internet. “ … we're none the wiser as to what's driving her …” speak for yourself, Isabel is an adventuress. She is entirely transparent. “She's hard and experienced beyond her years …” I would have said she was scared about what might happen at the hands of these men – violence being one of the reasons that the special sex worker-client zone was set up in Zurich. “Her testy relationship with her understanding, if distracted, mother (Géraldine Pailhas) is skillfully drawn and quietly unknowable …” yes, but her mother’s naivete is hard to believe – it’s of the “My little baby” genre. “ … her classmates reciting the French poet Rimbaud, feel similarly forced.” Have you been to a French lycee lately? When students read Rimbaud, it IS forced. “Pleasingly, Ozon upends a late episode with a new boyfriend in which it feels like matters are being wrapped up far too cleanly and neatly.” Did you miss the parts where she decides she loved Georges and where she decided that her classmate was not grown up enough? “But then, an even later appearance in a small role by Charlotte Rampling as the wife of one of Isabelle's clients is simply strange and impossible to believe.” I have known women to do exactly this.