YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL (Jeune & Jolie) B-
France (95 mi) 2013 d: François Ozon Official site [France]
The French have always been fascinated with prostitution in films, so the subject should come as no surprise. Godard’s VIVRE SA VIE (1962) is still one of his best efforts, which almost clinically explores the day-to-day life of a woman’s downward descent into prostitution. Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR (1967) was shot in Paris, where an otherwise frigid housewife works as a call girl in her free afternoons, complete with surrealistic fantasies. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus (Vénus noire) (2010) is a historical recreation of the life of Sarah Baartman (1789 – 1815), featuring an oversized black African woman with pronounced breasts and buttocks who heads a carnival act of the wild and the grotesque, becoming a freak of nature, openly displayed to the public half naked and exhibited as one of the wonders of the world. When she refuses to continue to be treated like a whipped slave, she spends the rest of her life as a dying and diseased prostitute. Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide – souvenirs de la maison close) (2011) is seen as cinematic reverie, where the film has a remarkably lush decorative bordello environment, featuring plenty of nudity, but also a documentary style repetition of banal detail showing the ordinary, day-to-day routines that the women follow, while Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles (2011) is also a quintessential French film, especially as seen through the emptiness of the middle class in yet another film that exploits female nudity while offering a social comment on the status of women in society. To this we can add Ozon’s film, which can also be seen as a teenage angst movie, as the film follows a single 17-year old girl named Isabelle (Marine Vacth) through four seasons of a year (much like an Éric Rohmer film), from her loss of virginity to a surge in her sexual awareness, developing a sex-oriented website offering adult sexual services in upscale hotels. Despite the colorful feel of innocent reverie from the opening, Ozon may be targeting the dangers of the Internet on today’s youth, where there are no boundaries that prevent teenagers from exploring and marketing their sexuality.
Ozon, who is outwardly gay, has always written strong women’s parts, especially UNDER THE SAND (2000), SWIMMING POOL (2003), 5 X 2 (2004), and ANGEL (2007), which feature not only extraordinary performances, but showcase characteristics of women’s inner strength that match their outer beauty, often at odds in the same film between different characters, where he’s expressed amazing insight into the female psyche. While this may have been his goal here as well, the naïveté and tender age of the lead actress creates unintended obstacles, where the way she breezes through a life of prostitution, seemingly unaffected and without a care in the world suggests a certain separation with reality. It’s unclear if this fantasized sexual ease is the view of the director or the young character herself, but either way, it’s a bit offputting, evoking a less than sympathetic identification with the character, as she’s simply oblivious to the negative ramifications. Perhaps this is due to the ease of her bourgeois, upper class lifestyle, where at the outset on holiday in the south of France, we see Isabelle sunbathing topless at an idyllic secluded beach that she apparently has all to herself. This recurrent beach setting exists throughout Ozon’s works, and may be his identification with queer culture which is otherwise absent in many of his films. Spied on by her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), who also sees her masturbating in her room, she is already something of an exhibitionist, catching the eye of a German vacationer Felix (Laurent Belbecque) who takes her virginity on the beach one night, and while seen as an out of body experience, as if she’s a separate entity able to escape her body and watch herself, the event seems to have little effect upon her. Jumping ahead, Isabelle, aka Lea, is already in the habit of meeting older men in upscale hotel rooms, where we see her with Georges (Johan Leysen), who could easily be her grandfather. This establishes a stream of similar visits in hotel rooms, offering the appearance of luxury and hedonism, where her naïveté becomes more obviously uncomfortable with crudeness and more demanding customers who are used to getting exactly what they ask for.
Understated and apathetic, it’s never apparent whether Isabelle receives any sexual gratification at all, as she rarely changes facial expressions, or why she chooses prostitution, never even spending the money, simply stashing the money away in a cash purse in her closet afterwards, but what is clear is that she begins to associate sex with power. Often at odds with her mother, Géraldine Pailhas, who worked with Ozon in 5 X 2 (2004), Isabelle sees this as a way of exerting her own sense of rebellious independence, which parallels her mother’s own behavior, caught by Isabelle flirting openly with another man. Perhaps only because it’s easier, she begins seeing Georges more often, where all she really has to do to please him is look young and beautiful, resembling Kiarostami’s latest Like Someone in Love (2012), though not nearly as involved, where the viewer here is more attuned to the vacuous repetition of hotel sex, where there’s little interaction or personal satisfaction. Isabelle’s life undergoes an upheaval when one of her customers is found dead in a hotel room, where security cameras trace her to the room, with the police exposing her secret to the family, who simply can’t come to terms with their somewhat aloof little girl who has lacked nothing during her lifetime turning to a life of prostitution, almost as if it was a lifestyle choice. Instead of hanging out with students her age, she was receiving compliments from older men by making a career out of granting sexual favors, basically becoming her own Make a Wish foundation. At seventeen, this is all a bit much, but Isabelle is unscathed by the revelations, showing little if any concern, where her world starts coming apart only afterwards when she no longer has the same control over her life, having to answer once again to her parents, feeling more like a kid—exactly what she was trying to get away from. Her only recourse is to withhold information and to rebel against their better instincts. The problem with this film is beauty is only skin deep, and Ozon never penetrates this young girl’s psyche like he has with older women in previous films. In something of an ode to those glory years, Charlotte Rampling, who is associated with Ozon’s best films, makes an appearance near the end that feels somewhat surreal, but even she can’t provide the depth or emotional heft that’s missing from this film. The film resembles the sexual objectification of Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011) (hint: remove the wall to wall nudity from these films and what have you got?), where the subject is oversexualized young women, both mystifyingly strange by their emotional passivity, and both incapable of any real connection in the world, where the unique formalism of the film couldn’t express more human detachment, as the stark nudity on display is stylishly empty.