She is shy when she enters her John’s hotel room, and he remarks about how young she looks. She tells him she’s twenty, even though she and the John both know she’s lying. It’s immaterial to them because the transgression is over, and the transaction is the only thing left. This delicate back and forth is essential to Young & Beautiful, the new erotic drama from French filmmaker François Ozon. He sexualizes his vulnerable female hero, but not to the point of exploitation. Ozon is an observant filmmaker, who’s sensitive to manners and class, and a specific byproduct of adolescence interests him. Owning one’s sexuality is an important part of coming of age, and Young & Beautiful is about what can happen when objectification forces that ownership to occur too quickly.
Ozon divides his film into four sections, one for each season. He begins with summer, where Isabelle (Marine Vacth) has her seventeenth birthday. She’s still discovering herself, sexually — she tries out topless beaches, and her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) catches her grinding on a pillow — so she feigns ambivalence when an older German boy (Lucas Prisor) shows an interest in her. They go on a date (she pays for ice cream, of course), and it ends with the loss of her virginity. Soon she ends it with the German, writing off their time as a summer fling, and the experience informs her newfound career as a prostitute. Posing as “Lea,” Isabelle goes to posh hotels after school and sleeps with older men. She’s able to keep her double life a secret until the police approach her unwitting mother (Géraldine Pailhas), who quite reasonably loses her shit.
The scenes with Isabelle and her Johns strike an uneasy balance between vulnerability and eroticism. Ozon frames the sex in a matter-of-fact way, with a mild overabundance of light; he does not shy away from nudity, but he does not embellish it, either. The scenes are given just enough ambiguity so, as with Ozon’s other work, the viewer must decide what to make of the action. Isabelle runs the gamut in her Johns: one treats her like trash, while a more sophisticated old man (Johan Leysen) is downright tender. Throughout these scenes, Vacth (who is in her early twenties) plays Isabelle as a young woman who’s fascinated by men and her newfound power over them. There are many ways Isabelle could have become a victim — the police are quick to point this out — but this film is not about abusive Johns. It’s about how desire and control are more powerful forces than propriety.
Young & Beautiful shifts toward even more interesting territory when Isabelle’s mother discovers her secret. The scenes in winter/spring are an uneasy realignment of her sexual power: without the secret cell phone or the money on the dresser, Isabelle returns to the life of an ordinary teen, albeit a stunning one. She pushes the buttons of her step-father (Frédéric Pierrot), as if holding onto the vestiges of her prostitute role. When that doesn’t work, Isabelle goes to a party where she stands outside the social strata of her classmates. Ozon pities Isabelle, in his own distant way: to borrow a phrase from Almost Famous, her time as a prostitute “robs her of an adolescence.” She starts a relationship with a high school boy, but it has none of the excitement of her double life, so she reacts accordingly. One of the Johns says to Isabelle/Lea, “Once a whore, always a whore,” and he’s indirectly correct. Isabelle cannot escape her previous mental space, no matter how hard her family and friends help her. Her brother Victor seems like her only true confidant, yet his transition into a ball of hormones ultimately renders him useless.
Part of the charm of the film is how scenes play out differently than we might expect. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate: scenes play out differently than American audiences might expect. With its more cavalier approach to sexuality, parts of Young & Beautiful are very, very French. There’s a scene in which Isabelle fucks her boyfriend, then they both join her parents are the breakfast table and joke about his sex stank. Even when Isabelle’s mother confronts her about her life as a prostitute, there’s a veneer of sophistication that informs her emotional whirlwind. There is no concern over stigmatization in Young & Beautiful, and the concern for Isabelle’s safety is ancillary. Instead, all the characters only worry about her stunted emotional growth.
Isabelle starts working as a prostitute simply because an anonymous man assigns that role to her. Instead of feeling shame, she decides to embrace it. Ozon argues that this is empowering, in a way: the film ends with a scene involving Isabelle and an older woman (not her mother), and there is the sense that both are speaking candidly about their double lives for the first time. The older woman envies Isabelle’s brazen defiance of typical sexuality, but neither can deny the loss of something essential. All the performances are carefully calibrated, not showing too much emotion, so there is added resonance with every furtive glance and knowing smile. Young & Beautiful is a slight film, one whose plot and themes develop gently, and there is little of the dark humor that can be found in the filmmaker’s earlier work. Still, it tells a story of empowerment and loss during a moment when American culture is grappling with what womanhood and feminism mean. Young & Beautiful is not as searing as Jonathon Frazer’s brilliant Under the Skin, but there’s power in its understated realism.