François Ozon is no longer an enfant terrible himself and so he has begun to write scripts about them instead. It’s the best thing that could have happened to his career. Last year’s In the House brought an end to a seven-year slump, a return to form as well as a return to the themes that made the French auteur an artist to watch in the first place. It drew strength from Ozon’s fascination with the written word and his dangerous interest in the sensual underbelly of the traditional bourgeois home. It was something of a triumph. And now, a year later, it can be said with assurance that it was not a fluke.
Young & Beautiful stars ingenue Marine Vacth as Isabelle, a beautiful and eventually quite enigmatic girl poised on the cusp of her 17th birthday. It is summer and she has a summer romance, a blonde German named Felix who is vacationing in the same gorgeous seaside town as her family. Their fling advances as you might expect, from the awkward hesitations of youth to the frenetic and abrupt ecstasy of sexual discovery. For Isabelle the loss of her virginity is quite literally an out of body experience, Ozon choosing this moment for the most obvious show of his directorial hand in the film. She watches herself from above with a somewhat perplexed expression, not entirely sure yet what this coupling on the sand will mean.
As it turns out, that’s about it for Felix. The family returns to Paris and Isabelle forgets him without much difficulty. It is not long before the real story begins. In the autumn, quite suddenly, Ozon introduces her brand-new post-virginity side job. Independently operating off of a dating website, she has become something of a belle de jour. She sells herself to older men in the afternoons, mostly in fancy hotels.
One in particular makes a strong impression, a craggy-faced gentleman named Georges (Johan Leysen). He makes her strangely giddy, his desire confirming something she wishes to see in herself. Vacth’s performance is necessarily and impressively restrained, but not so stiff that it cannot capture Isabelle’s growth. Her melancholy eyes hold both wisdom and unadulterated desire, and the duel between the two remains compelling up until the film’s last, aching moments.
The narrative tension comes from the fact that her family has absolutely no idea. In fact, nothing at home seems particularly out of place. Isabelle and her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) fight quite a bit, but it’s remarkably similar to the prickly relationships between every teenager and their parent. This is new for Ozon, the introduction of a sexually subversive element into a home that continues to operate within the bounds of realist drama. Back in the days of Sitcom, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, and 8 Women the director tore apart the bourgeois family with his teeth. The resulting films were camp, gleeful and vicious plural marriages of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and disco.
Now, with Young & Beautiful and In the House, Ozon has found a different route into the still-persistent family. In Sitcom an entire house becomes a den of incest and confusion. Here there are only suggestions. Isabelle approaches but is rebuffed by her step-father. There is a sexual fascination shared by Isabelle and her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), but it is only another subtle tone in a much wider tapestry of desire and deceit.
All of this is woven together with Ozon’s signature erotic languor. Longtime collaborator Philippe Rombi has composed yet another score with shades of classic Hollywood melodrama, smooth and with a hint of death. Cinematographer Pascal Marti does some of his best work in the film’s many corridors, both of expensive hotels and a less glamorous high school. There is an erotic cool even in the more potentially distasteful moments. The lone montage of Isabelle at work with her many clients emphasizes not the sordidness of it all but her own quiet joy in being desired. This is not nymphomania. It is simply youth.
And perhaps therein lies Ozon’s motivation. When he made Sitcom back in 1998 he tried to prove the absurdity of the bourgeois, heteronormative European family by blowing it up. Now, over a decade later, he has chosen to undermine it in a much sneakier way. On the surface this is a fairly conventional coming of age drama. Isabelle begins with desire, then pursues her desire to be desired and finally grows to develop some understanding of desire itself. Yet never is she really punished for it, nor is her family. Ozon has chosen to tilt rather than upend and it pays off.
The Upside: This is a quietly subversive film in some unexpected ways, as wise as it is erotic.
The Downside: Ozon breaks the film into four chapters, each of them representing a season of a single year. While his choice of Françoise Hardy songs to separate them is inspired, the divides weaken the narrative a bit.
On the Side: Both Marine Vacth and Géraldine Pailhas were nominated for César awards for their performances, though neither won.