Young and Beautiful

May 3, 2014
Marine Vacth in 'Young and Beautiful' (2013)
Marine Vacth in 'Young and Beautiful' (2013)

Young and Beautiful is a film about every parent’s nightmare and the French film industry’s abiding obsession. Imagine finding your 17 year-old daughter had taken up prostitution as a way of earning spare cash in the same way that other girls take up baby-sitting. Fans of French cinema may feel a sense of déjà vu in this treatment of prostitution. In Bertrand Blier’s movies it often seems as if all women are prostitutes or aspire to that condition – in the manner of a spiritual vocation. Now Francois Ozon has crept into very similar territory.

There are innumerable precedents in French literature, art and film, at least since the time of Toulouse-Lautrec, but it took Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) to make prostitution into a state of being rather than a job. In one of her most famous roles, Catherine Deneuve played an upper-class woman who goes to work in a brothel because of a strange personal compulsion. As always with Bunuel there is a cruel satire on the bourgeoisie, but the film is not merely a critique of class.

There are echoes of Belle de Jour in Ozon’s character, Isabelle, a Parisian schoolgirl who becomes a prostitute for no apparent reason. Unlike the girls in Malgoska Szumowska’s Elles, of last year, she doesn’t need the cash to support her university studies. Neither is she is a sex addict, like Joe in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. The truly disturbing part of this movie is Isabelle’s lack of motivation. She acts as if she has been pre-programmed.

In former model, Marine Vacth, Ozon has found an actress with an aloof beauty who never seems to be fully engaged with the life around her. Ozon says that he chose Vacth for the role of Isabelle because of her “opacity”. There could be no better word to describe both actress and character.

Young and Beautiful is divided into four chapters that correspond to the four seasons. It begins with Isabelle and her family taking summer holidays at a beach resort in the south of France. The basic family unit consists of a loving mother (Géraldine Pailhas), her affable step-father (Frédéric Pierrot), and her younger brother, Victor (Fantin Lavat) who takes a keen interest in his big sister’s love life.

Isabelle’s summer project is to lose her virginity, which she manages with the help of Felix (Lucas Prisor), a German boy for whom she feels no special affection. When the next chapter begins we are in Paris, and Isabelle is walking into a hotel to meet a client with whom she will have sex for €300.

This is Isabelle’s first venture into the game and she is nervous and awkward. Soon, however, she settles into the part, running her own internet site under an assumed name, telling clients she is 20. For the viewer, the transformation from teenage virgin to high class call girl is abrupt and inexplicable, which is presumably what the director intended. Ozon says the film is about behaviour rather than psychology, if one may be imagined as separate from the other.

We follow the progress of Isabelle’s clandestine career as she services a variety of middle aged men, most of them unattractive, cynical and vulgar, like the fat businessman who demands sex in the back of his car in a parking lot, and farewells Isabelle with the adage: “Whore for a day, whore forever”.

Business is brisk until a major mishap occurs with one of Isabelle’s regular clients. The police are called, her secret life exposed, and her mother left to deal with the traumatic discovery. Isabelle, for her part, seems more opaque than ever. She feels no particular shame and can’t provide an explanation for her actions. A visit to a psychologist yields no better results. She has crossed a line and feels more comfortable on the other side. When she finds a boyfriend her own age, she is just as indifferent as she was with paying clients.

In most of the sex scenes Vacth is nude, and engaged in a series of mechanical couplings. Ozon obviously wants us to feel like voyeurs, but it’s difficult not to see him in the same light. Like the notorious ten-minute, nude lesbian sex scene in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, which took ten days to film, one gets the feeling that artistic necessity equates to a need to keep a beautiful girl naked in front of the camera for as long as possible. Look out for the Director’s Cut!

The film avoids moralising so completely that it seeks to shame viewers out of their own moral apprehensions. But while I can’t pretend it’s any great ordeal to watch Marine Vacth spend so much time without her clothes on, there is an exploitative element in this movie that leaves an unpleasant after-taste. If the film doesn’t exactly glamorise prostitution it normalises it to a high degree. In pitching his subject beyond good and evil, Ozon comes dangerously close to sacrificing social reality for sexual fantasy.

Young and Beautiful
France, rated R 18+
95 mins
Written & directed by Francois Ozon; starring Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Fantin Ravat, Johan Leysen, Charlotte Rampling

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 3 May, 2014.

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