I'm a freelance writer living and studying in Sydney
Published April 15th 2014
4 out of 5 stars
Please note this review contains spoilers.
François Ozon, in his latest film Young and Beautiful (Jeune et Jolie), explores a teenage girl's experience of coming of age amidst her sexual exploration. The film begins with Parisian teenager, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), on Summer holidays with her family in the South of France. On the eve of her 17th birthday, Isabelle loses her virginity to a German boy she has met on holidays, experiencing her first sexual encounter in a rather melancholy and detached state; deriving no pleasure from the act. This is the ominous beginning of Isabelle's double life, in which she plays both the dutiful daughter and the high-end prostitute.
Ozon portrays Isabelle's prostitution akin to anorexia or drugs - a teenage addiction that soon becomes detrimental to both her mental health and physical safety. Throughout the film, the audience is looking into Isabelle's life but are never truly in it. We are outsiders, like every other character in Isabelle's life, and we do not understand her or her motivations. As such, the reason for her pursuit of prostitution remains unknown and, in this way, Ozon beautifully - and almost scarily - portrays the downward descent of precocious youth.
Vacth is true to character and remains vacant and detached throughout the film. She says little and rarely smiles but there is something rather mesmerising about seeing such a tremendously beautiful young girl looking so empty inside. In doing so, the audience becomes drawn to the mystery of what lies beneath the skin. It makes us question the catalyst for her double life: is it the absence of her father causing her to look for affection from older men? Is it because she did not enjoy her first sexual encounter and seeks to correct this? But the beauty of Ozon's psychological blackhole is that we will never know.
The melancholy and detached Isabelle
When an older John dies during sexual intercourse with Isabelle, we see emotions of fear and uncertainty in the protagonist for the very first time. She flees the scene with the police eventually tracking her down and interrogating her mother about Isabelle's prostitution. Her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) is, understandably, baffled and distraught; breaking down completely in one emotive scene where she hits and screams at Isabelle. Pailhas gives an outstanding performance and her character is relatable. We are given more insight into her thoughts and fears than we are Isabelle's and this allows us to empathise rather than blame. After she hits Isabelle, she apologises. She tries to understand her daughter and remedy their relationship.
Isabelle's brother, Victor (Fantin Ravat), is the only person who Isabelle really confides in but, even then, the divulged secrets are only abstracts of the whole. Isabelle and Victor jest about each other's sexual experiences in a blasé nature that highlights the strong sibling bond between them. Victor covers for his sister when she sneaks away to lose her virginity and asks her about it afterwards. He is curious but also protective, as younger brothers instinctively are. Victor's character shadows Isabelle's sexual forays towards the end of the film, where the audience witness him masturbating, inspecting new body hair and finding a girlfriend. This exemplifies Ozon's theme of 'coming of age'.
Marine Vacth and Geraldine Pailhas as mother and daughter
Ozon's "Young and Beautiful" explores the teenage experience of growing up in a beautifully melancholy matter, relatable to audiences both young and old in the matters of love and sex. The script, acting and camera work are without fault and the overall product is a work of art. Ultimately relatable and thought-provoking, Young and Beautiful takes the viewer back to their own first sexual encounters and experiences of growing up; melancholy or not.