"Young and Beautiful" (Jeune & Jolie) by François Ozon, which opens May 9 in San Francisco, features four seasons and four songs. Every scene is filled with the beautiful face of the director's lead actress, 24 year old Marine Vacth who was 21 during the production. It is a role that will bring her career forward and like Catherine Deneuve who played the beautiful prostitute from a happy home and not from the streets in "Belle de Jour"(1967), it will be the cornerstone by which all subsequent films with Vacth will be judged.
The 17 year old Isabelle has sex for the first time on the beach with a young German. From all indications it is not a wonderful experience, perhaps for him but certainly not for her. It is not only uncomfortable but mechanical and unpleasurable. While her family is watching TV she sees an ad for an escort service online, makes a profile and begins taking clients. Her clients pay her for the sex, often calling her names. To call this a sexual awakening or exploration of sexuality is a real stretch.
Inevitably Isabelle is discovered leaving a hotel by surveillance cameras and tracked to her home. Her mother and stepfather find out and she is sent to the worst kind of psychiatrist for reform. Four old love songs sung by women convey the myth of love with the right guy. Isabelle tries to have a normal life after the police become involved but she has become addicted to causal, anonymous and ungratifying sex with high pay. She has learned to be flirtatious and get attention and power from men. She later meets the kind of guy her parents would approve of but it's not for her.
This kind of film has been made over and over in France and it is not unusual that it winds up in the official selection at Cannes by a veteran filmmaker, a viable commercial product for the French market. Charlotte Rampling is also a stable commodity in the French cinema market and has appeared in other films made by Ozon. In this one, she plays the wife of one of Isabelle’s clients.
The cinematography by Pascal Marti ("Paris je t’aime") is one of the virtues of the film. Attempts are made to understand Isabelle’s social background and two details are relevant. One is that her biological father often sends her money and is out of the picture, and the other is that her stepfather is always lurking around walking into rooms where his stepchildren dress or shower. He is unaware that his wife is cheating on him, something known to Isabelle. As many men and women with multiple partners have expressed, the boundaries with their parents or guardians were not very clear and were often incestuous.
The premise of the film is that you can always fall in love and live (un)happily ever after, but the danger and excitement of prostitution is held in higher regard. It seems impossible for Isabelle to ‘reform’ nor is it presented as desirable.