'Young and Beautiful': An upscale French view of prostitution
Young and Beautiful, a new film from director François Ozon, introduces us to Isabelle a few days before her 17th birthday. She is on a beach holiday with her family (mom, stepdad, brother), suffering the pangs of teenage boredom and eager to lose her virginity. An opportunity presents itself after an evening stroll on the boardwalk.
As Isabelle and her date have sex on the beach, dispassionately and unremarkably, with Isabelle grimacing through the act, she looks into the darkness and sees a figure approach, slowly racking into focus. The figure is Isabelle herself, a ghostly doppelganger. They lock eyes in a kind of mute acknowledgement of the moment at hand. The scene is staged as a silent farewell, the virginal Isabelle replaced by her deflowered twin, and you have to wonder later if something else was lost that night besides Isabelle’s girlhood. Innocence certainly, but also the urge for love and intimacy. When we catch up with her back in Paris, the school year underway, Isabelle has transformed into more than just your average grumpy teenager. Aloof and hollow, Isabelle is now, we learn quickly, a hooker.
Isabelle is played by Marine Vacth, a stunning beauty, who traverses the questionable terrain of this film with a mostly blank and humorless expression, a fitting embodiment of this precocious teen playing at being a prostitute. Her inexperience, and her not-very-believable moans of pleasure, don’t appear to bother the majority of her johns, all of whom are older men paying for exactly what Isabelle is providing: the wish-fulfillment of barely legal sex with an amateur. The men themselves are nearly all rich, handsome and graying, as though they stepped out of one of those Patek Philippe watch ads, and the sex is performed in clean, perfumed hotel rooms. Condoms are barely mentioned. Hints of violence, abuse, other kinky stuff, that’s left for the rough trade paying for blow jobs in bathroom stalls.
Ozon, whose film will be playing at SIFF Film Center and SIFF Cinema Uptown through Wednesday, is clearly playing to the well-heeled art house audience here, with his elegant set designs; the seductive whites and blues of crisp bed sheets; the soft-core graphics of the sex, Vacth’s willing body the fully nude center of the polished bedroom action. But these scenes, as stimulating as they are (far be it from me to deny the steamy delights of sex in French cinema, especially when compared to the Puritanical chastity belt smothering all eroticism in American films), are also pure male fantasy, a scenario validated by Isabelle’s own independent free will, working without a pimp, exploring her blossoming sexuality with the help of the best teachers in the world: experienced, wealthy, generous, presumably married older men, while at the same time earning herself a little spending money.
Ozon may be suggesting, in fact, that what Isabelle understood after her night on the beach was that sex is and always will be a transaction. She takes that realization literally, accepting payment in cold cash, eschewing the more traditional exchanges of kisses, hand-holding, promises of going steady, date nights and the sharing of secrets with boyfriends. How, one can argue, is her choice of a calculated sexual awakening working as a prostitute more demeaning than the promiscuous fumblings of drunken sex during alcohol-fueled parties, the possibilities of date rape, abbreviated intercourse in cars or on couches, or the insecurities suffered when a teenager isn’t getting any attention from potential sex partners? Isabelle has simply taken matters in her own hands. What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is what’s missing from Isabelle’s life, and this is where the director picks and chooses his fantasy to suit a titillating, too-tidy narrative. Isabelle’s home life seems in good working order; she is well-loved, comfortable, smart. She certainly doesn’t need the money, nor does she seem to spend it on much of anything. If her prostitution is meant to be an act of rebellion, it’s difficult to know what or whom she is targeting. For this stretch of the film, we are left to wonder, uncomfortably, if all Ozon wants to say is “show me a sexually adventurous teenage girl and I’ll show you the whore waiting to break free.” But then, abruptly, Isabelle’s double life is revealed.
The best scene in the film occurs when her mother is confronted with Isabelle’s secret, and mom’s angry, anguished reaction seems to finally awaken her daughter’s dormant soul. Isabelle’s heart, which vanished on that summer beach, begins to tiptoe back toward the empty space where it once resided. Something like normalcy returns to this young woman’s daily life, and there are hints that perhaps it was all just a phase, like shoplifting or overeating, but Ozon can’t leave well-enough alone. The final shot, preceded by a strange encounter and an unexpected cameo, feints in a different direction, which Ozon borrows from a line told to Isabelle by one of her tricks: Once a whore, always a whore.
This review first appeared on The Restless Critic.