Directed by: François Ozon.
Written By: François Ozon.
Starring: Marine Vacth (Isabelle), Géraldine Pailhas (Sylvie), Frédéric Pierrot (Patrick), Fantin Ravat (Victor), Johan Leysen (Georges), Charlotte Rampling (Alice), Nathalie Richard (Véro), Djedje Apali (Peter), Lucas Prisor (Felix), Laurent Delbecque (Alex), Jeanne Ruff (Claire).
Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) is one of the best movies of all time – about a young, beautiful Paris housewife of a rich man who works two afternoons a week at a brothel. It is an erotic, ambiguous, mysterious and brilliant film – and contains arguably the best work of the incomparable Catherine Deneuve. Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful is obviously inspired by Bunuel’s film – his protagonist is a spoiled, 17 year old Parisian girl who becomes an internet call girl, seeing mainly middle aged or older men until one dies during sex, and the whole mess comes crashing down around her. The difference between Bunuel’s film and Ozon’s film is simple – Bunuel understands who his protagonist is, and why she does what she does. Ozon doesn’t seem to have a clue.
The film is told over the course of a year – in four parts separated by the seasons. It starts in summer when Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is on vacation with her mother Sylvie (Geraldine Pailhas), her stepfather and younger brother. She’s having a summer romance with a German boy named Felix and the two have a rather sweet date, that ends with her losing her virginity on the beach. She seems bored by the experience, and afterwards she is cold towards Felix. When they return to Paris for the school year, she opens a webpage, and starts seeing men – for hundreds of Euros a pop.
Why does Isabelle do this? The movie never explains. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the movie gave us any indication that Isabelle at least knew why she was doing it. But Vacth plays Isabelle as almost a complete blank slate. She is gorgeous, but she never betrays any sort of emotion whatsoever. She doesn’t seem to either like or dislike the sex. She doesn’t seem to like or dislike much of anything. If it’s simple boredom that drives her to do it, that would one thing – but I’m not sure that is it either. There does seem to be some genuine emotion on the part of the aging Jon who dies during sex – he has seen her before, and is interested in her as a person, not just as a sex object (although he also sees her as that as well). She seems to feel some guilt over that – and also some shame when her mother finds out her secret. That part of the movie that deals with the fallout of her secret being revealed is the best in the movie – while Isabelle may be a blank slate, Sylvie isn’t – and her love for her daughter is mixed with shame, and even a little revulsion. The movie tiptoes towards some dangerous ground with the relationship between Isabelle and her stepfather, but quickly retreats to safer ground. The last act of the movie basically resets itself to the beginning – and suggests the whole thing may just start over again.
There has been a long history of European – often French – movies that explore the sexuality of teenage girls. Some of these films are brilliant works of art, some are mere exploitation. On the surface, Young & Beautiful seems like one of the more artistic end of the spectrum, but as it moves along, and I started to understand that Ozon wasn’t really interested in really exploring Isabelle as a person, I started to think that it really is more the later. Ozon is a prolific, yet inconsistent director. His last film, In the House, was one of his best. Now comes Young & Beautiful – and I cannot help but think it’s one of his worst.