Young and Beautiful (Jeune et jolie) (François Ozon – France) 93 minutes
The prolific François Ozon’s fourteenth feature is a companion piece` to his popular hit from last year, In the House, in which a schoolteacher discovers the sensual writing talent of one of his pupils. Young and Beautiful (its English title is far more ungainly than the original) treats in a similar way nascent sexuality and literary awakening, which, once again, go hand in hand. 16-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth), takes to prostitution soon after losing her virginity through a holiday fling, but the film is also punctuated with the familiar texts of a French teenage literary education: Les liaisons dangereuses, Madame Bovary and Rimbaud’s poem ‘Roman’, with its famous opening line ‘you’re not serious when you’re just seventeen’. All three are reflected in the film’s action, where Isabelle, for reasons unexplained, decides to venture into the dangerous world of online prostitution, for vast sums that she doesn’t even seem to need.
From a well-off family, and a student at the elite Lycée Henri-IV, about as prestigious as French public education can get, Isabelle is a quiet but not visibly troubled young girl. Her drift into prostitution appears to be motivated more by curiosity or a sense of adventure than necessity, unlike in other recent films about student prostitution, Damjan Kozole’s Slovenian Girl and Małgorzata Szumowska’s Elles. Ozon’s portrait is clinical and distanced and introduces no judgement, though to his credit, he doesn’t shy away from the dangers and the exploitation inherent in prostitution. He also surprisingly shifts the film’s focus relatively early on, which gives it a different dynamic to what you were initially expecting.
Young and Beautiful is a well mounted, intelligent film and is occasionally very funny, like when Isabelle visits a shrink with her mother and when she is quoted his hourly rate, asks ‘is that all?’ Vacth has been highly praised in France for her performance, a little overpraised, if you ask me – when you are selected and lovingly filmed by François Ozon, a director who has already made Natacha Regnier, Ludivine Sagnier and more recently Ernst Umhauer in In the House, you’re looking at an open goal, it’s pretty hard to fuck up. Still, she is impressive, there’s no denying that. If there is a problem with the film though, it is a recurring one with Ozon’s work, and one that means he will always be a second-rank director. His films always start off with a greater sense of purpose and intent than they end. It is not even a case of them having internal structural contradictions that cause them to fail but their metaphysical scope shrinks inexorably. In a way they are like the lives their teenage characters are destined to lead – brilliant studies, followed by a well-paid job and a retreat into comfortable suburban obscurity. Young and Beautiful starts off intriguing but by its rather abrupt conclusion, it has drastically diminished in scale and scope, like a distant Eiffel Tower wedged between the fingertips of tourists in those goofy holiday photos.