François Ozon arguably let audiences off a little easy with his last two films, the amiably light Potiche and the wryly witty yet discursive In The House. But the director, known for piercing deep into the nature of sexual mores, is back with a doozy in the form of Young & Beautiful. It’s part coming-of-age drama, part thigh-slapping family satire and part morality fable. Fans of the director craving another toothed, bracing effort will find themselves very much at home here.
Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is a 17-year-old girl who has developed a natural curiosity about sex and soon enough endures an awkward encounter in which she loses her virgnity (when are they not?) to a local boy. Soon enough Isabelle decides, of her own volition, to become a prostitute. How this will affect both her clients and her family, she is oblivious to until her wild new life eventually — and some might say inevitably — comes suddenly crashing down.
It is certainly a provocative mission statement with which to confront the viewer, the notion of a middle-class woman turning to prostitution not out of necessity but as a means of asserting her own agency. Early images of Isabelle sunbathing topless and masturbating with a pillow — both of which are spied upon by her younger brother — prove provocative and seductive, yet this is a perception that changes gradually over the course of the film.
This isn’t to discount Ms. Vacth’s obvious sex appeal. Rather, it is all the more credit to Ozon that he is able to de-sexualise her somewhat. There is an unerring sexual frankness about proceedings, and an overtly comfortable relationship between brother and sister particularly generates a strange undercurrent that will keep viewers on edge in that classic Ozon way.
Isabelle has her notions of sex upended early on by her first encounter, and the subsequently blunt parting of ways with the young man involved. It is up to viewers to decide if the flippancy of this liaison is what drives her to become a sex worker; Ozon smartly doesn’t ladel out the answers and instead challenges us to seek our own. This, along with some dubious role models in Isabelle’s life, including a mother who may or may not be having an affair with a family friend, no doubt do not dissuade her from this uneasy road to sexual awakening and female emancipation (or, as viewers will find themselves wondering, is it subjugation?).
Though Vacth is a major find, a confident performer with a striking look — not to mention, as the title suggests, stunningly beautiful — the film is rarely titilating by virtue of the subject matter alone, which takes a grim, and also grimly funny, left turn at the film’s halfway point. The ironies of Isabelle’s adventure at this point begin to unfurl; her beauty is unquestionably a tool and also a weapon, one turned inadventantly inward against the self. Thus, while a third act romance might at first seem rushed, that’s precisely the point. Isabelle has her lurid encounters as a prime romantic frame of reference, and when presented with a viable mate, is at a loss as to how she should comport herself.
There’s the inevitable temptation arc arriving late on, in which Isabelle is teased back down the dark rabbit-hole, one boasting a brief but startling appearance from Charlotte Rampling, though Ozon does well not to commit stringently to any one outcome. After all, Isabelle is like any other 17-year-old girl, impulsive and erratic. To resign her to a concrete future would be disingenuous, and to treat her as any differently from what she is by nature would be a massive cheat. Thankfully, the director comes out all guns blazing with this pleasantly irreverent feature that leaves much lingering in the mind.
The Upside: Ozon delivers a dark, thought-provoking coming-of-age story that’s also peppered with well-placed bouts of uproarious humor. The central performance from Marine Vacth will be sure to point plenty of attention her way. Ozon fans, I suspect, will meanwhile love it.
The Downside: It may not be about enough for some audiences, and the patent lack of a definitive ending may disappoint.
On the Side: This is Ozon’s fourth film to feature Charlotte Rampling, following Under the Sand, Swimming Pool and Angel.