Of all the filmmakers across the globe, the French always seem to deliver the deepest ruminations on human relationships through intimate corporeal exchanges. One of France’s best is François Ozon. Though his film last year did not completely impress me, his newest stands as one of his best in a long time. Young & Beautiful follows 17-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) exploring her newfound sexuality by prostituting herself over the Internet and facing the consequences once her divorcée mother, Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas), finds out about her sexual escapades. The impressive thing about the manner in which Ozon handles the drama is that he never looks down on his protagonist even while recognizing her imperfect choices.
When one considers how Hollywood handles female sexuality, it’s either chaste, superficial or deviant. Even foreign directors are guilty of getting it wrong sometimes; Lars Von Trier certainly botched it up with his (unintentionally?) hysterical portrait of a woman and her sex life with Nymph()maniac. With his new film, Ozon certainly proves he understands women with more depth than Von Trier, who seems obsessed with working out his personal demons through the feminine identity. Ozon’s insight comes out bracingly when Isabelle has to face the consequences, not with society, but with her heartbroken mother. Vacth and Pailhas bring a delicate pathos to their characters that speaks to both the hard lessons that loom for Isabelle and her mother’s regret of youth gone by.
The film introduces us to Isabelle while she is on summer vacation with her family, who also includes younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) and stepfather Patrick (Frédéric Pierrot). Alone on the beach, she hesitatingly removes her top. The action happens through the lenses of a pair of binoculars. It will turn out that her little brother is on the other end. Later, it is he who pushes her to give up her virginity to Felix (Lucas Prisor), a German tourist she seems to have grown fond of while on this trip. When she does it, Victor wants to know all about it. To some, this might seem like incest by proxy, to others, these are children left alone to discover what is this thing called sex. Let’s face it, most kids learn about it through experience, and it’s ultimately personal.
Beyond Vacth’s restrained performance, Ozon captures her anxiety with an appropriately reserved style uncharacteristic of his earlier films. He uses camera gestures sparingly, so when cameraman Pascal Marti pulls in to the actress’ face after Felix casually invites her to a party, it draws the viewer in to her internal experience as opposed to making a spectacle of it. Sex isn’t easy for this girl, and she has high expectations. When it does happen, in a rare instance of overt stylization for this film, Ozon presents it as an out-of-body experience for the teenager. There is still a rawness to the scene, as it features nothing more than her clothed Self standing on the beach watching her ravaged, almost catatonic body being aggressively humped by Felix. It becomes a memory she hesitates to relate to Victor and wants to leave far behind. She does not even tell a close friend at school she has lost virginity even as she coaches her on how to handle sex for the first time. There is clearly a gap there in connecting sex to herself, so no, the audience should not be surprised when Isabelle takes the name Lea and presents parts of her body on the Internet advertising herself as a 20-year-old call girl.
Ozon grants her forgiveness in another stylized scenario. Students in her class take turns reading Rimbaud’s “Novel,” with its famous opening line, “No one’s serious at seventeen.” They read against a solid blue background, a scene that recalls a similar moment from Ozon’s last film following a sociopathic student from In the House. But Young & Beautiful does not dwell on such craft for long. Besides a montage of the older men caught in the ecstasy orgasm with Isabelle, Ozon maintains a severe yet tender tone throughout the film. There is life for this young woman after this nefarious journey into the dark side of sex. She does try a house party with schoolmates she once wrote off as “runts,” cruising the rooms filled with uninhibited youths to the intoxicating sound of M83’s “Midnight City.” But it turns out it’s not that easy to begin a new life again. That no easy resolution comes to Isabelle’s life speaks to how complicating her exploits have affected her life. It should be difficult, and Ozon does not taint it by offering any easy, trite conclusion.
Young & Beautiful is a refreshingly emotionally complex film that follows a young woman’s growth in a world weighed down by double standards. Even her mother is not excused from culpability. But the heart of the drama lies in the trust that is lost between mother and daughter, as the mother understands the potency of Isabelle’s gesture. It’s a moving thing to watch as these two generations of women tangle with the aftermath of this predicament. It cuts to a core of a young woman’s relationship to her sexuality that few male directors can handle so well and with such focus. There is some ironic use of French pop songs, but no added bits of sentiment can add or subtract from the substance of this drama, and thankfully Ozon seems quite in touch as only the French can be with such a subject.
Young & Beautiful runs 95 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (considering the subject, it’s clearly for the more mature audience member). IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens this Friday, May 23, in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema and the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand, but it’s a beautiful big screen film. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website here.
(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)