French filmmaker Francois Ozon’s work has included directing many of the finest actresses in Europe, including Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardent, Catherine Deneuve, Kristin Scott Thomas, Isabelle Huppert and Charlote Rambling. He has guided these women to thoughtful and provocative performances in such films as 8 Women and Swimming Pool. To that list of engaging films he can add Young & Beautiful. In it, Marine Vacth delivers a masterful portrayal of a teenage girl exploring her sexuality and dealing with the consequences or her secret life. The film is available now on DVD.
Broken into fours acts, the film opens in “Summer,” where we meet Isabelle (Vacth), celebrating her 17th birthday with her mother (Geraldine Pailhas), brother (Fantin Ravat) and stepfather (Frederic Pierrot) at their summer rental in the south of France. As the season winds down, Isabelle loses her virginity to a German boy and it fails to meet her expectations. Perhaps hoping for a romantic, orgasmic moment, she instead receives discomfort and pebbles on her back.
The experience leaves Isabelle withdrawn and moody. As the family leaves for home, she decides to dig deeper into understanding her sexual needs.
Moving into “Autumn,” the second act, we quickly learn that Isabelle has become a high priced escort. Told through a series of tracking shots, we watch the girl, made up to appear much older, enter a luxurious hotel and meet Georges (Johan Leysen), a man in his 60s. There is no explanation as to why Isabelle became a prostitute, a mystery that Ozon wisely chooses to keep until later in the movie. Instead, he thrusts us into Isabelle’s new life, keeping us wondering why she’s chosen to turn tricks in the afternoons (after school) and not on weekends (because she has homework).
Georges is one of her best clients, and he becomes quite fond of Isabelle. She represents a longing to a time in his past when he was young beautiful. Isabelle becomes fond of Georges, as well, and he seems to be the only man who can please her during her many hotel trysts. Despite an occasional bad experience (one client jacks off on her back and refuses to pay her what she’s owed), Isabelle’s life as an escort is presented in a romantic way, both visually and through Vacth’s acting. Isabelle practically glows with each john she beds.
Her life takes a drastic turn when Georges dies from a heart attack during one of their afternoons together. Naked and afraid, Isabelle flees the scene and decides to quit prostitution. Winter has come.
The repercussions of Isabelle’s actions and the revelation to her family that she’s been an escort make up the “Winter” and “Spring” acts of Young & Beautiful. If you think Isabelle’s family will react in horror and shame, you’ll be surprised. However, her mother and Isabelle’s therapist do get to the root of the girl’s desires and behaviors. At this point, Ozon finally reveals the chain of events that explain how Isabelle became a prostitute.
I was quite moved by this film, something I didn’t expect going into it. The trailer sure makes the film seem like it may be a glamorous Cinemax film. Instead, Ozon really places you inside the head of Isabelle and treats her apathy and disconnect from her emotions in a absorbing manner. Isabelle could have come across as a brat and just another spoiled teenage character that’s tough to care about.
Vacth is in nearly every frame of the film and she displays incredible range darting back and forth between the foolish teen girl unsure how to deal with a real crisis, and the cool, slick prostitute who controls most of her transactions. Whether you appreciate Young & Beautiful for its risks and emotionally depth, you will come away realizing that you’ve just seen a star making turn by Vacth, and if you’re like me, you’ll be waiting in anticipation for the next role she takes.