I’ll try to limit myself to revealing only the first 20 minutes of plot specifics in Young & Beautiful, the new French drama from auteur writer-director Francois Ozon. I had the good fortune to go into it basically cold, and the “Holy shit they’re going that route?!” moments start coming pretty quickly.
The film opens on an idyllic vacation one family is taking on a French beach. The daughter, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), is celebrating her 17th birthday, and flirting with Felix (Lucas Prisor), a boyishly good-looking German kid who’s also cavorting about the seaside town. Isabelle does not like to admit to the relationship, and dismisses Felix in discussions with her curious mother (Géraldine Pailhas) and laid-back stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot).
Isabelle is more open with her little brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), who is careening into puberty himself and thus unsurprisingly fascinated by the goings on of his elder sibling. The film is not coy about the underlying sexual tension of this exchange – Victor spies on Isabelle while she’s sunbathing topless at one point, and at another momentarily stumbles upon her masturbating – but Ozon keeps a firm tonal control and does not let matters slip into exploitation.
Then Isabelle loses her virginity to Felix one night on the beach, and it does not go well: it’s consensual and the young man is trying – he strokes Isabelle’s hair and kisses her cheek – but he ultimately does not know what he’s doing. There’s no eye contact, and the sex is clearly abrupt, uncomfortable, and unpleasant for the young woman. In a particularly unnerving moment, Isabelle looks off down the sand only to see an apparition of her herself impassively observing the proceedings.
After that, the vacation ends, the family returns to the city, and the film jumps ahead to autumn. At which point, in response to whatever psychological ripple effects were set off by the encounter with Felix, Isabelle has become a high-end prostitute. She calls herself “Lea,” visits all her customers at various hotels, and screens them herself through a website profile. She tells the johns – all significantly older men – that she’s 20, but it’s pretty obvious most of them know better. Events, needless to say, spiral on from there in ways both predictable and not.
There’s obviously a good deal of sex and nudity, and yes it’s a bit weird that it’s supposed to be an underage character (even though Vacth herself is in her early 20s). Some of it cannot help but be arousing, but again Ozon knows what he’s doing, maintaining a clinical stance that is neither inflamed nor scandalized by Isabelle’s behavior – just intrigued. Vacth herself is a former model, and arguably not gifted with immense acting range. But she internalizes Isabelle well, and between her performance, the script, and Ozon’s direction, Young & Beautiful turns Isabelle into a challenging and impervious riddle.
There’s a gentle suggestion she might be taking after her mother, her was also a wild child in her youth. But both Isabelle’s parents seem like sane people doing the best they can, and her home life is by all accounts healthy.
The film is not so subversive as to come right out and say there’s nothing terribly radical about what Isabelle is doing – that her prostitution is simply a more elaborate version of the sexual exploration all young people go through – but the implication is there. Several of the men are creepy, but Isabelle fortunately never appears to encounter any actual violence or assault. So yes, it’s a dangerous business, as some of the dialogue points out. But so too are mountain biking or cave diving or football or a host of other activities.
The sadness really creeps in with the perversion of human communion that prostitution almost inherently entails. One of Isabelle’s johns, Georges (Johan Leysen), is more caring and humane than the others, and you can feel a kind of connection between the two straining against the boundaries put in place by the nature of the relationship. In an observant scene late in the film, Isabelle visits a neighborhood party of her fellow teenagers, and the almost-endearing bacchanal silliness contrasts well with Isabelle’s other activities: this is how self-discovery ought to proceed for the young.
Human sexuality is a structural force, a thing that exists in the world. Which means it has its own rules regardless of our intent, so we can hurt ourselves and others by wielding it unwisely. Felix wields that power over Isabelle, and then she goes on to wield it over others. As they’re both young, they are of course not malevolent – and Isabelle especially is sympathetic – and they have little idea what they’re doing. The hardest parts of the film are when Isabelle gets so carried away with her newfound power that she begins threatening the stability of other relationships around her. She becomes for a time a child with a loaded gun: she’s so enthralled by the thing that she forgets who she’s pointing it at, or what might happen if she actually slipped up and pulled the trigger. In some ways it’s a coming of age story, with Isabelle’s arc as a particular brute encounter with those facts.
It might be a bit much to pin all of Isabelle’s choices in the film to the unpleasantness of losing her virginity. But it does seem to function as a loss of faith; the discovery that even something as romanticized as youthful and enthusiastically consensual sexual desire can nonetheless turn lonely and destructive. Having caught an unexpected and unsettling glimpse into the particular abyss, it’s as if Isabelle canott stop looking – and down the rabbit hole she goes. So the comparison to mountain biking or extreme sports is apt. This a young person defining herself by testing her limits; seeking self-discovery in extremis.