Jeune & Jolie

Young & Beautiful (2013), a provocative new French film by director François Ozon, Swimming Pool (2003) and Potiche (2010), that explores our universal obsession with youth and sex, is a coming of age tale about seventeen year old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) from middle-class divorced parents, who is drawn into a world of prostitution with elderly male clients. 

North American and English cinema tends to be uncomfortable with nudity and explicit sex acts within a family setting; American Beauty (1999) and Fish Tank (2009) come to mind as examples of taboo subject matter that did not sit well with audiences. So we are taken aback by the more open attitudes toward nudity and sexuality in European and especially French cinema, regarding it as exploitation at best and pornography at worst rather than art. 

In the opening scenes of Young & Beautiful we see Isabelle as a normal teenager on vacation with her family at a summer beach resort. She wants to have her first sex experience with a boy, but when she finally decides the time is right and is disappointed by her lack of emotional connection, she begins a journey of self-discovery that will alienate her from her family and friends. 

As with the recent Cannes winner Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), there are some explicit sex scenes, but here there is a disturbing sense of unease and danger as the inexperienced Isabelle, so young and naïve, finds herself alone and vulnerable with men much older than her.

Driven by a desire for acceptance and independence, she is proud that she’s taken her first steps into new adult world where her youth and beauty are highly valued and admired. Using her newly found sexual power and mature look, she eventually finds herself becoming an in-demand prostitute with a wealthy clientele of older men looking for discrete sex.

The film is a fascinating study into modern social issues surrounding sex, adolescence and family responsibilities in contemporary European society. Isabelle’s ability to emotionally disconnect from the people she has sexual relations with, allows her to continue meeting her rich clients in high end hotel rooms without imposing any moral judgments on herself.

She seems to enjoy her new found identity and acceptance into this mysterious world of power and wealth as we follow Isabelle navigating a precarious course between her relationship with her younger brother and family life at home, her class mates at school, and her secret rendezvous as a high class call girl, as if it’s just a normal part of her new life.

The film is stylishly depicted with stunning photography and natural performances in authentic Paris locations. There is a voyeurism that comes across from following this striking young girl around through her daily routine and we are drawn in by the contrast and contradiction of a seemingly normal teenager’s life and the darker world of men’s sexual fantasies.

American reaction to this film is often to question the director’s motives or intentions for making such a film, but they seem to be unaware or discount the cultural disparity of French society. French cinema and François Ozon in particular tends to be more adventurous with sexual politics and family issues.

Eventually Isabelle’s secret world comes crashing down as she discovers her vulnerability and those of her clients and family. Her inability to deal with, or even see the dangers of her double life, takes her to a place she was not prepared for as she must now face the consequences. 



Susan Cooper said...

This looks like a very interesting movie John. I've not view very many foreign films but the ones that I have have I have thoroughly enjoyed. This may be another one for me to go see.

Max Ivey said...

Hello; the subject matter would probably keep me from watching or that is listening to this film. Of course, I have no way of knowing if it is in english or if the subtitles would be described if it came with audio descriptions for blind viewers. I think it is important to consider films like this with the cultural differences in mind. thanks for sharing, max