Young and Beautiful is a member of that not-so-rare species: films from male directors about female sexuality. Recent notable sightings include Blue is the Warmest Color, Nymphomaniac, and even the strange American cousin sighted this week, Fading Gigolo.
Director François Ozon (In the House, 5x2, Swimming Pool) makes some familiar observations: girls like sex too, sex is not the same thing as intimacy, sex can be power, and it can be an addiction. Those may not eye-opening insights to you, but they are lessons learned by the film’s 17-year-old protagonist.
Autumn Changes Everything
Isabelle (Marine Vacth, who was in her early 20s when she acted in the film) turns 17 one summer and has her first sexual experience with a German boy who is also vacationing on the French coast. Her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) is curious about sex, but a little too young to be more than curious. Her mother and stepfather seem to provide a stable, healthy family, with summer breaks at the beach, an apartment in Paris, good clothes, good food, and no more than the usual neuroses.
But summer ends, and Ozon cuts to Autumn, and suddenly Isabelle is walking to an appointment in a hotel with a white-haired man ready to pay for sex.
The suddenness of her appearance as a prostitute is jarring, and we don’t get a peek inside Isabelle’s head, so we don’t know what’s driving it. She continues to go to school, hang out with friends, have dinner with her family, and talk to her little brother. But she also has sex with strangers for money.
Perhaps Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour is a better precedent.
Pain and Catharsis
I wasn’t sure where Ozon was going with the story. For a good third of the film, Isabelle’s business keeps running without much conflict or interruption. But eventually, something happens that exposes Isabelle’s secret life to the adults in her world. Here, Ozon gives them a chance to ask what the audience has been wanting to know all along... why did Isabelle turn herself into “Lea?” There aren’t any easy answers, but the process of understanding, moralizing, even forgiving, gives the film its conflict. (Though whether Isabelle thinks forgiveness is required remains to be seen.)
In the last act, Isabelle makes a game attempt to live the life of a normal teenager. Ozon and Vacth make the point that Isabelle can hardly be said to be a normal teenager anymore. Does she seem so much older that her peers merely because of the casting? Or is it Vacth’s knowing, bored performance, and the fact that we’ve seen her in a montage of sex with multiple partners, that conveys how far beyond the other teenagers at the party she is? Whatever the case, it’s clear that maturity doesn’t happen to everyone at the same time, and when your biological schedule is an outlier, things might go badly for you.
After Isabelle was found out by her parents, there was a lot of emotional pain in her life. I expected Ozon would have to find an awkward moment to end on and leave us sympathizing with Isabelle’s unhappiness. Instead, he writes a surprisingly satisfying ending, introducing Charlotte Rampling in a closing scene with Vacth. Not much changes, but there is a subtle emotional catharsis that lets you leave the theater thinking maybe everything will be okay after all.