Young and Beautiful

Year: 2013
Production Co: Mandarin Films
Director: François Ozon
Writer: François Ozon
Cast: Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot

Oh to be a French film director, the only occupation where you can fetishise attractive young women, have them take their clothes off as much as possible and still be accepted as a legitimate artist.

Such is the lot of François Ozon, and despite the high filmmaking quality in Young and Beautiful, it's one of those European arthouse films that makes you wonder if the entire movement isn't having a lend of you, portraying such an artistic style even though it's just grot.

Whatever the intent of Ozon and his pervy contemporaries, it's a new twist on the old erotic story of the sexual coming of age of the young woman. The winsome Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is 17 and on holiday with her parents in an idyllic seaside resort when she loses her virginity to the eager but bumbling German boyfriend who's been courting her.

After the holiday we cut immediately to Isabelle's life back in Paris where she's a student and a call girl, meeting men old enough to be her grandfather in plush hotels. The leap from innocent ingénue to working girl isn't explained until much later, but Isabelle doesn't seem to feel much during her professional couplings, instead learning how to fake pleasure and excitement from Internet porn.

It's when a regular client dies on the job that she freaks out, leaving him dead in the hotel room and fleeing, losing whatever taste she had for her secret life in the process.

But she's not smart or stealthy enough to circumvent the security cameras and the police, and soon her secret is out to her mother Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas), who's heartbroken, wondering where she went wrong even though she and the kid's stepfather have given Isabelle and her younger brother a comfortable upbringing full of love.

The fall-out is a 180-degree turn from what we traditionally know of sex in French films – that it's to be enjoyed for its own sake and that there needn't be consequences. In this case, Isabelle soon finds that she's like a IED everyone's afraid will go off. When the Dad of family friends makes to drive her home after she's been babysitting for them, the mother suddenly insists on taking Isabelle home herself, obviously worried the girl is a slut who can't help but seduce any man she's alone with after what's been revealed about her.

The same thing grows even more tragic when Sylvie comes across Isabelle and her step father laughing and joking conspiratorially and suddenly feels she can't even trust her daughter around her own husband.

The entire ending of Isabelle meeting the wife of the man who died in her arms is a step too far – it seems Ozon just wanted to find a role for Charlotte Rampling after working with her so successfully so many times before.

By contrast, Vacth seems to have been cast because of her attractiveness and willingness to disrobe. Her role doesn't call for much emotion or even expression, and she doesn't seem the sort to be able to muster it if it did.

Like the best films of its type, it continues to raise questions after it's over (what's the nature of the power women have over men? Should it be used for commercial gain? How young is too young to start using it? Do women gain it before they gain the tools adulthood brings to control or deploy it?), but if you want you can just relax and enjoy the spoils of the thankfully liberal French artistic class and its acceptance of – almost a demand for – sex and nudity.

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