Friday, May 31, 2013

Young & Beautiful

When we first meet Isabelle (Marine Vacth), she doesn’t seem much different than most 16-year-olds. Yes, she’s strikingly beautiful in a bikini, but the adolescent uncertainty and hormonal urges are quite recognizable and universal. Once this French girl loses her virginity to an older German guy, however, her behavior changes in ways that neither we nor anyone close to her could have imagined.

Young & Beautiful tracks a year in the life of Isabelle, and Swimming Pool and In the House filmmaker François Ozon’s strongest creative choice is to never answer precisely what’s going on inside that pretty head of hers. Liberated of her virginity, Isabelle is then seen a few months later, now 17 and entering a hotel room in an outfit only worn by respectable hookers: high heels, too short skirt, a business jacket in the hopes of not calling attention to what she’s really there to do. We’ll eventually get an inkling about how this unlikely transformation took place, but only an inkling. Ozon and Vacth show but don’t tell in this character piece. It elevates what could be just another ballad-of-a-hooker drama into something far more mysterious.

Following hot on the heels of his return to playfully serious form with “In the House” after several slighter efforts, writer-helmer Francois Ozon continues his mid-career roll with “Young & Beautiful.” Like “House,” the new film is a nuanced, emotionally temperate study of a precocious youth, this time centered on a bourgeois teenage girl — entrancingly incarnated by newcomer Marine Vacth — who takes up prostitution the way other kids might get sucked into drugs, eating disorders or self-harm. Although it lacks its predecessor’s critic-wowing metafictional fireworks, its elegant execution will win warm regard, while the baby “Belle de jour” subject matter should lure audiences at arthouses worldwide.

Starting in summer, the story is broken into four seasonal “chapters” that span a year’s worth of action. The lightly worn structural formalism is a typically Ozonian touch, despite the film’s overall unfussy realism. Sixteen-going-on-17 protagonist Isabelle (model-thesp Vacth) is first seen through the binoculars of her younger brother, Victor (Fantin Ravat), as she discreetly loosens her bikini bra to sunbathe topless. She’s indeed a character more often seen through others’ eyes, giving little of herself away.

A gazelle-limbed beauty who’s already mastered the art of understated sartorial chic the way only Gallic women can, Isabelle has struck up a tentative holiday romance with a German himbo, Felix (Lucas Prisor). Although Isabelle thinks Felix is too “dumb” to introduce to her haute-bourgeois family, she likes him well enough to let him help her shed her virginity like an outgrown dress, in a strikingly filmed scene in which a literally detached Isabelle watches herself in action (recalling a similar motif in Ozon’s “Time to Leave”).

François Ozon arguably let audiences off a little easy with his last two films, the amiably light Potiche and the wryly witty yet discursive In The House. But the director, known for piercing deep into the nature of sexual mores, is back with a doozy in the form of Young & Beautiful. It’s part coming-of-age drama, part thigh-slapping family satire and part morality fable. Fans of the director craving another toothed, bracing effort will find themselves very much at home here.

Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is a 17-year-old girl who has developed a natural curiosity about sex and soon enough endures an awkward encounter in which she loses her virgnity (when are they not?) to a local boy. Soon enough Isabelle decides, of her own volition, to become a prostitute. How this will affect both her clients and her family, she is oblivious to until her wild new life eventually — and some might say inevitably — comes suddenly crashing down.

It is certainly a provocative mission statement with which to confront the viewer, the notion of a middle-class woman turning to prostitution not out of necessity but as a means of asserting her own agency. Early images of Isabelle sunbathing topless and masturbating with a pillow — both of which are spied upon by her younger brother — prove provocative and seductive, yet this is a perception that changes gradually over the course of the film.

This isn’t to discount Ms. Vacth’s obvious sex appeal. Rather, it is all the more credit to Ozon that he is able to de-sexualise her somewhat. There is an unerring sexual frankness about proceedings, and an overtly comfortable relationship between brother and sister particularly generates a strange undercurrent that will keep viewers on edge in that classic Ozon way.

Isabelle has her notions of sex upended early on by her first encounter, and the subsequently blunt parting of ways with the young man involved. It is up to viewers to decide if the flippancy of this liaison is what drives her to become a sex worker; Ozon smartly doesn’t ladel out the answers and instead challenges us to seek our own. This, along with some dubious role models in Isabelle’s life, including a mother who may or may not be having an affair with a family friend, no doubt do not dissuade her from this uneasy road to sexual awakening and female emancipation (or, as viewers will find themselves wondering, is it subjugation?).

Though Vacth is a major find, a confident performer with a striking look — not to mention, as the title suggests, stunningly beautiful — the film is rarely titilating by virtue of the subject matter alone, which takes a grim, and also grimly funny, left turn at the film’s halfway point. The ironies of Isabelle’s adventure at this point begin to unfurl; her beauty is unquestionably a tool and also a weapon, one turned inadventantly inward against the self. Thus, while a third act romance might at first seem rushed, that’s precisely the point. Isabelle has her lurid encounters as a prime romantic frame of reference, and when presented with a viable mate, is at a loss as to how she should comport herself.

François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful is, in the very best sense, a film that won't add up. Moment by moment you think you have the measure of it, but when you stand back, the overall picture is as baffling as that optical illusion in which the tuning fork suddenly seems to grow an extra prong.

Ozon’s film, which screened to a mix of applause and mild hissing at the Cannes Festival on Thursday morning, is concerned with female sexuality, particularly in its nascent stages, and as such we have every right to be bamboozled. It centres on a Parisienne teenager called Isabelle, played by the 23-year-old French actress and model Marine Vacth, in what could prove to be a star-making turn. She has a certain demeanour – not unlike Catherine Deneuve’s in Belle de Jour – that suggests she alone knows the answers and isn’t telling, and her black-widowish flirtations with the camera may prompt critics who should know better to reach for words like ‘willowy’ and ‘bee-stung’.

The mysteries of adolescence, and in particular, the sense of control and power that can accompany a gorgeous girl’s discovery of her sexuality, are explored with hypnotic focus in Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie). This aptly titled latest film from François Ozon is both psychologically probing and unerringly elegant in its nonjudgmental restraint, driven by a transfixing performance from the incandescent Marine Vacth that will land her major exposure on the casting radar.

Given that much of the plot centers on the double life led by 17-year-old Isabelle (Vacth), who drifts from the loss of her virginity into prostitution while still a student, superficial comparisons with the 1967 Luis Bunuel classic Belle de Jour are inevitable. But the drama fits snugly into the body of work of writer-director Ozon, whose darkly humorous early films like Sitcom, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks all featured teenagers encountering sexual adventure with little moral encumbrance. The intoxicating allure of youthful sensuality also was a key element of Swimming Pool.

The new, strikingly mature film marks a natural progression from Ozon’s arresting 2012 work, In the House, in which a male teen was the agent provocateur. However, unlike that playful Hitchcockian quasi-thriller, Young & Beautiful is both more carnal and more sober, suggesting the danger and fragility inherent in the central character’s experimentation while keeping the dramatic intensity subdued.

The story takes place over a year, divided into four seasonal chapters. Each of them is punctuated at the conclusion by a song from the 1960s or ’70s by French pop’s most iconic purveyor of wistful romance and introspective disillusionment, Francoise Hardy.

At 23, Marine Vacth is already a veteran model. Spotted by a scout at the age of 15, she became the face of Yves Saint Laurent’s “Parisienne” fragrance in 2011, a job previously held by Kate Moss. After small roles in films by Cédric Klapisch and Alexandre Arcady, Vacth will doubtless receive more attention after the release of François Ozon’s Jeune et jolie (Young and Beautiful), which premiered on Thursday as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Official Competition.

Ozon’s film is considerably less straightforward, and more puzzling, than Vacth’s seemingly smooth career trajectory. Yet by the end of the film, it’s abundantly clear why the director (whose films range from the frothy 8 Women to thrillers like Swimming Pool) wanted her for the central role of a morose teen prostitute. Instead of the usual case study of a good girl gone bad, a genre long cherished by Hollywood, Young and Beautiful is a thoroughly nonmoralistic, rather clinical, film about the opaque Isabelle, a 17-year-old from a well-heeled family who becomes a part-time hooker for pleasure instead of money. Perhaps the most radical—and most disturbing—aspect of the film is Ozon’s refusal to give the audience access to Isabelle’s interior life; this is not a character study in which a protagonist’s behavior is explained with the help of psychological talking points.

Vacht’s low-key approach to acting, in which emotions only register on her face in the subtlest fashion, is perfectly suited to the demands of a film that, quite perversely for some audience members, depicts an adolescent’s sexual experimentation without analyzing it. Interestingly enough, Ozon lucidly explains his casting of Vacth by arguing that he “realized it would be better to work with an actress who was slightly older than the role, someone with maturity and distance … The moment I met her, I was struck by an impression of extreme fragility and, at the same time, strength … Her obvious physical beauty holds a mystery, a secret. It arouses our curiosity, we want to know more.”

"No one's serious at seventeen," goes a line from Rimbaud's poem of the same name, and it's just one of a handful of confused messages in Francois Ozon's "Jeune Et Jolie (Young And Beautiful)," a flesh-filled exploration of teenage sexuality. Ozon, no stranger to provocative imagery, takes off the rose-colored glasses for his look at youthful dalliances and coming-of-age. Indeed, there is nary a sexual experience or conversation within the film that isn't marked by some kind of confusion, pain or absence of feeling, with "Jeune Et Joli" either the profile of a single wayward youth or a declaration that sex has devolved into a crude transaction.

This kind of uncertainty is indicative of the movie itself, told through the eyes of the undeniably beautiful, 17 year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth). Spanning four seasons (if only to give the movie a structure), we open in the Summer, as Isabelle vacations with her family in the south of France. She's fallen an into easy going relationship with Felix, but she prefers to keep it impersonal, initially refusing to bring him back to her house for dinner, after her parent's request. "He's too dumb," she quips, but he's also traditionally handsome. And at the age when hormones are raging, Isabelle has discovered the release masturbation provides.

Felix pursues her, but Isabelle is cooly indifferent. "If you like," tends to be her general response to anything he asks, and yet, when it comes to losing her virginity one night on the beach, her guard immediately comes down. She doesn't love him and the experience isn't pleasurable (Ozon underscores this by having Isabelle stand outside herself, watching, as it happens), but what she really feels and how it has changed her remains inscrutable. And thus, when we get to the Fall, and she has decided to become a prostitute, the move is as shocking as it is wholly mysterious. It's this enigmatic quality to the film that makes it somewhat compelling, even as it trades in many of the cliches we've seen from this kind of story.

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