Monday, April 28, 2014

Young & Beautiful (***)

Jeune & jolie
Written and Directed by Francois Ozon


It must be embarrassing for Lars von Trier to watch Young & Beautiful and realize that French filmmaker Francois Ozon accomplished everything that he wished to accomplish in his opus Nymphomaniac in nearly a quarter of the time. I must admit that I'm terribly ignorant of Ozon's filmography, and while I've always been interested in watching 8 Women and Swimming Pool, I just have never gotten around to it. I know there has been a common theme of female sexuality in a lot of his films, and Young & Beautiful is another narrative in that tradition. So perhaps I don't enter this film with the same baggage as I did with the von Trier film, since von Trier's often brilliant but occasionally smarmy act of running actresses through the physically emotional ringer felt tired in his two-part, pornographic film. Young & Beautiful isn't anywhere near as graphic - there isn't even a single erection! - and Ozon doesn't force his young actress, Marine Vacth, to encounter the darker psychological aspects of her carnal actions. No, instead Ozon allows the sex to go forward without judgment. It is a truly sexy film about illicit sex that is both revealing and without exploitation.

The film's narrative is loose but it is not plotless. Isabelle (Vacth) is a teenaged girl who's seemingly gotten the jump on her sexual maturity, looking every bit a woman before her seventeenth birthday. She attracts men, both of her age and older, and her curiosity is peaked. Her and her family spend the summer at a beach resort. Her mother, Sylvie (Geraldine Pailhas), encourages her daughter to have fun, detailing her own wild teenaged nights and hoping her own daughter has the same kind of fun. But of everyone in her family, the one she feels closest to is her younger brother, Victor (Fantin Ravat), who at 12 is going through his own bouts of sexual curiosity. It's Victor whom Isabelle tells about her plans to have her virginity taken by a young German boy who's also staying on the beach. Isabelle's first sexual encounter is without much fanfare. She can't stop her mind from wandering and the act feels like a chore. When it's done, she doesn't make time to speak much with the German boy again and lets their connection float away without much of a care. Losing her virginity was the hard part, and as she returns home from the family's summer getaway, she makes a bold decision.

The film cuts to the fall of that year and Isabelle is already succeeding as a high-end prostitute without much effort. She does this on her own without the help of any kind of pimp and with the help of internet sites that allow her to show off her stunning young body to anyone who may want a taste... for a price. She has numerous trysts with dozens of men and manages to keep it all a secret from her family who never have a reason to suspect what Isabelle may be doing between the hours of when she gets off from school and when she comes home before dinner. One man in particular, an older man named Georges (Johan Leysen), becomes attached to her, and while Isabelle never treats Georges as much more than a client, she does develop an affection for the tender-hearted man and they begin to see each other often. If the whole concept seems far-fetched, it's because it totally is; especially that Isabelle essentially never encounters any real danger despite the incredibly vulnerable position that she puts herself in with each meeting. Instead, Isabelle's secret life is turned over when a legal matter makes Sylvie aware of her daughters grave indiscretions.

After the discovery, Young & Beautiful becomes more plot driven, the actions of her mother and her step-father, Patrick (Frederic Pierrot), become more authoritarian. How can such a young, seemingly intelligent girl turn to whoring for no reason seemingly other than interest? Throughout it all, Isabelle remains emotionally even. Even during all of the sex, she appears unable and unwilling to feel anything. The aloofness that arose during her sex with the German boy has stayed with her, and her cravings for the act seem more pathological than sensual. The money just seems to be an interesting perk, not a serious end gain. Her compulsive need for physical desire is impossible for Sylvie to comprehend. In this way, Ozon's film is quite a lot like Shame Steve McQueen's masterful film also dealing with sex addiction - but that film was about a man enabled by his powerful monetary position and good looks. Young & Beautiful is about a young woman taking advantage of the most powerful asset that she possesses. There's no malice in her actions; she sees becoming a prostitute as little more than a smart, capitalistic endeavor.

There was another French film from last year, Blue is the Warmest Color, that also cast a young, unknown actress in a role of teenaged sexual awakening. Both films have a similar scene-by-scene feel to them, a more interest in the procedural aspects that come with promiscuity. But Blue was bloated, too busy meandering on the concept of reality that it didn't notice that it's narrative was uninteresting and so was its visual style. Young & Beautiful understands that it is a character-led film but that doesn't stop Ozon from adding several interesting shots and a screenplay that at least connects. The French are infamous for their nonchalant attitude when it comes to sexuality; Young & Beautiful certainly is that. The performance from Vacth is cypherous and carefree. She doesn't grab possession of the screen the way Adele Exarchopoulos did in Blue, the ideas are what is possessive here. Young & Beautiful has many interesting things to say about a woman's use of her own sexuality. Isabelle is hardly apologetic at any point in this film, even when her actions effect her family; she chases her desires. Whether or not she's an ideal human being is another discussion, but it's refreshing to see how this film deals with its female protagonist.

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