by Matt Levine
The oldest profession in the world has been a subject of continuing interest for some of the most acclaimed directors in film history, from Buñuel (Belle de Jour, 1967) to Fellini (Nights of Cabiria, 1957) to Godard (Vivre Sa Vie, 1962). Some of these films are great, but they’re also often typified by the reductive stereotypes of female sexuality to which male directors occasionally succumb: either the saintly hooker with a heart of gold or the dangerous temptress wielding her sexuality to lure men to their downfall. It’s the old virgin vs. whore complex, indulged by filmmakers who sometimes seem to care more about having their actresses shed their clothes than bare their emotions. Such stereotypes become even more overt when compared to depictions of prostitution in films by female directors, such as Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) or Keren Yedaya’s Or, mon Tresor (2004)—both of which are more rueful and subversive in depicting their characters’ precarious lifestyle. François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful may unfortunately be added to the list of films about prostitution by male directors that, despite their frequent nudity, never expose their female characters emotionally or psychologically—they’re simply ciphers for a mysterious sexuality, their remoteness titillating yet hardly empathetic.
Director: François Ozon
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Writer: François Ozon
Cinematographer: Pascal Marti
Editor: Laure Gardette
Music: Philippe Rombi
Cast: Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Fantin Ravat, Johan Leysen, Charlotte Rampling, Nathalie Richard, Djedje Apali, Lucas Prisor, Laurent Delbecque, Jeanne Ruff
Premiere: May 16, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 25, 2014
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
The title refers to 17-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth), whom we first meet vacationing in the south of France with her wealthy family. The first image of the film is spied through binoculars: slender Isabelle, clad in a skimpy bikini, lies down on the beach, looks around nervously, and removes her top. Complete with binocular masking, this shot is a cheeky way to open the film—an overt reference to the audience’s (not to mention the movie’s) inherent voyeurism, particularly when channeled towards a beautiful young woman. The character wielding the binoculars turns out to be Isabelle’s young brother, Victor (Fantin Ravat), who is infatuated with his sister’s budding sexuality not out of lust for her, but because he eagerly awaits his own sexual awakening. From the start, Isabelle is a remote, aloof character: she seems to sleepwalk through these gorgeous trappings, relying on her beauty to attract and intrigue others (including friends and family). She only sheds this chilly exterior when interacting with Victor—their scenes together have a warm intimacy—but with everyone else it seems she’s playing the role of the mannequin.
This is especially true of Felix (Lucas Prisor), a handsome German vacationing in the same village who clearly has lascivious designs on Isabelle. He actually seems decent enough, and her family loves him; but when she eventually decides to lose her virginity to him, it seems more out of curiosity than any kind of mutual attraction. Their quiet, unflinching sex scene, taking place on the beach at nighttime, is as cryptic as almost everything else in the movie: Isabelle does not seem to enjoy it, yet at the same time is transfixed by the experience—an idea conveyed by a shot in which Isabelle envisions herself standing in the distance, viewing her loss of virginity as an out-of-body experience. This overtly dreamlike moment might be over-the-top, but it’s also one of the few times that Ozon tries to suggest Isabelle’s turbulent emotions through visual imagery—a daring attempt at character identification that the movie could use more of.
After sleeping with Felix, Isabelle curtly tosses him aside, ignoring him for the rest of the vacation—at which point Young & Beautiful leaps into its second of four sections, entitled “Autumn.” Each episode in the film correlates to a season of the year, the transitions marked by Françoise Hardy songs—a gimmick which becomes tiresome in its smirking sarcasm (the optimism of Hardy’s pop songs couldn’t be further from the icy ambiguity on display). Sometime between summer and fall, Isabelle makes the decision to become a self-employed prostitute, arranging her rendezvous with wealthy clients on an internet dating service. She frequently visits an elderly man named Georges (Johan Leysen), who treats her with respect and makes her feel wanted (the first time she seems to enjoy sex is with Georges); but she also visits other men, some of whom callously abuse her (including one john who gloatingly tells her, “once a whore, always a whore”).
Why does Isabelle toss herself so flippantly into the world of prostitution? The film provides no answers, which is hypothetically to Ozon’s credit. Isabelle is so detached and unreadable, her stoic facial features an impassive porcelain mask, that it’s almost impossible to read any kind of emotional or psychological motivation from her. The fact that she acts as her own pimp, arranging the details and price of each meeting, suggests that she uses her new vocation as a way to gain authority in the way that comes naturally to her—as a bid for empowerment, in other words, though such themes always seem a little dubious coming from a male director who would have no idea what the experience of prostitution actually entails. The movie also reminds us that Isabelle’s father left when she was young and now has little to do with her life (though her mother has since remarried); a crude psychological diagnosis would suggest his abandonment as a motivation for her prostitution. More likely, Isabelle’s desire to become a prostitute emerges from her sheltered bourgeois existence—a more apt title for the film might have been Young & Beautiful & Rich & Bored. Like the heroines of Belle de Jour or Vivre Sa Vie, Isabelle approaches prostitution as a sort of existential gambit—to take control over her own life, to break through the shell of her existence and dive headfirst into human nature.
But Young & Beautiful lacks Godard’s harsh compassion for Nana in Vivre Sa Vie, or Buñuel’s haunting depiction of psychosexual obsession in Belle de Jour. In Ozon’s hands, the film becomes a cold and inscrutable depiction of a young woman who should be fascinating, but only ever remains a blank slate. This problem has marred several of Ozon’s films before: as in Swimming Pool (2003) or Time to Leave (2005), he mistakes a sumptuous visual style and enigmatic characters for dramatic intensity, turning his films into intriguing but ultimately hollow exercises. With Young & Beautiful, we might initially try to guess at Isabelle’s motivations, but there’s so little to her character that such a thoughtful effort on the audience’s part eventually becomes fruitless.
One thing’s for sure: the fault does not lie with Marine Vacth, the actress-model who will likely be launched to stardom after her performance here. Obviously she’s beautiful (and in a graceful, classical way, like Veronica Lake or Anna Karina), but the brief moments in which an emotional tremor passes over her glacial features suggest the actress' depth and subtlety as well. Ozon clearly intends her to be an enigma for audiences to decode, which forces Vacth’s performance to be mostly detached and befuddling, but she’s still able to achieve moments of compassion and believability.
As winter and spring come around, Isabelle’s naïve expectations of a prostitute’s life are proven wrong. Her fantasy comes to an end when an elderly client has a heart attack during sex, killing him; she vows to quit, but that doesn’t prevent the police from informing her mother and stepfather of her “double life.” (One night, Isabelle coyly asks her stepfather if he’s ever hired a prostitute—her batting eyelashes and sultry gaze turning him into putty in her hands, at least until Isabelle’s mother intervenes. Clearly Isabelle enjoys the lustful power she has over the men around her.) Isabelle does attempt to “live a normal life,” even dating a likeable high school boy; but after they have sex she is again withdrawn and dissatisfied, and quickly reinitiates her lucrative business. This is where the film concludes, predictably open-ended.
As is usually the case, Ozon demonstrates a fine command over the film’s aesthetics. The vibrant, slow-moving camerawork by Pascal Marti observes Isabelle curiously yet remotely, ably evoking her mysterious nature; and the film moves quickly, intentionally allowing the audience little time for contemplation. But Ozon’s stylistic flourishes can also be self-defeating: a scene in which Isabelle and her friends dance in a drug-and-booze-induced haze (while an anomalous, melancholy pop song plays on the soundtrack) is vacuous and irritating, bringing to mind similarly self-indulgent scenes in the recent Simon Killer (2012). There’s no doubt Ozon can craft a tense, scintillating film; it’s the character development and thematic foundation of his films that often seem flimsy or non-existent.
By the end of Young & Beautiful, what have we determined about Isabelle’s character? Essentially nothing—or, at least, only what we can deduce from her oblique behavior. Sometimes such a cryptic approach is commendable, but here it simply appears that Ozon has nothing to say about this subject matter, which is hardly fresh to begin with. Given how little interest Ozon has in fleshing out Isabelle’s character or interrogating such an extreme life decision, it’s hard to tell why Ozon would even want to make this film in the first place—aside from the desire to create another alluring yet empty tale of eroticism. In the end, Isabelle is simply yet another symbol (propped up by a male artist) for the ravishing mystery of female sexuality, defined entirely by her unknowability.