Young and Beautiful
Isabelle, the tepid seventeen-year-old at the center of Francois Ozon’s new drama of disturbance, certainly is "Young & Beautiful" as the title suggests, the obvious judgment being that she is too young for her activities and too beautiful for her own good. When the film opens, she is making her first foray into sexual exploration while on a beach holiday with her parents. She has her lustful eyes set on Felix, a blonde German guy with commendable French and an even more commendable physique. For assured and aloof Isabelle, he is easy to seduce, and easily disposable. He is significant only in light of what follows. The unremarkable encounter with Felix gives her the awareness of her own sexual power and of her capacity for emotional detachment in the throes of carnal pleasure that she needs to be composed in the trenches of prostitution by the next season.
The French seem to have a penchant for borderline incestuous relationships or sibling partnerships involving adolescents that share more with each other than most Americans can fathom, and the dynamic between Isabelle and her younger brother, Victor, make for an interesting case. From the beginning, Victor is abetting her seduction of Felix (as if she needs help) and inquiring about how it goes. Later, when Isabelle is fully/over-realized as a sexual being, she reverses this unabashed curiosity, finding that where she has found audacity, her brother has paradoxically found modesty. But this is a minor part of the film. Ultimately, this is about Isabelle stumbling into the world’s oldest profession while still in high school and, despite having zero financial need, embracing it wholeheartedly.
Ozon and actress Marine Vacth create a character whose expressiveness exists effectively if tenuously between stoicism and lucid emotionality. Isabelle is cryptic enough to be alternately alluring and frustrating, depending on the scene, but also offers up just enough emotion to suggest that she may in fact be an emotionally healthy human being. There is room for doubt, of course, when observing a seventeen-year-old dressed in chic suits, gliding down elegant hotel corridors with utter serenity and resolve, and navigating the awkward and callous demands of older men without flinching, let alone fleeing. A key pleasure of this script is that Ozon sets us on a dubious path towards what seems like it may be Isabelle’s redemption. When a date with a regular john of whom she is fond goes awry and her mother and stepfather learn of her extracurricular activity, she seems repentant in her way. She is not apologetic, but she is inwardly reviled and resolved to give it up. However, perhaps there is prescience in one of her first john’s utterance of the cliché, "Once a whore always a whore."
Suffice it to say, this is not a clear cut narrative path; it is an Ozon path, rich with the dark side of sexual prowess and self-realization, delectably unsettling moments, and subtle mockery of the humanist urge. Parents, therapists, and smitten boys be damned, this is Isabelle’s world; those who don’t abide by the rules may be dropped like last season’s trend. This makes for an interesting last quarter. Oh, and don’t miss Charlotte Rampling’s appearance at the end as the wizened and inquisitive wife of a john.