The topic of teenage sexuality has always been a fascination of French auteurs and French cinema in general. Exploring the many fascinating avenues of contemporary sexual decision making and the choices of many multi-layered characters within the countless French narratives revolving around adolescents, François Ozon’s latest Young & Beautiful is a mysteriously alluring tale of carnal choices and fateful meetings that shape the life of its protagonist Isabelle (played marvelously by Marine Vatch in a star-making performance) and the people’s lives she touches upon her decision to become a prostitute in modern day Paris, France.
Opening on a family vacation somewhere on the idlyic French coast, we are introduced to Isabelle and her family during one of their annual summer vacations. The family, a well-to do working class unit, enjoy the very simple pleasures of togetherness and vacationing. Isabelle is introduced as a beautiful and presumably innocent young seventeen year-old girl who; enjoys laying on the beach, sharing her adolescent experiences with her curious little brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), and is looking to lose her virginity to a young and handsome German boy named Felix (Lucas Prisor). Coming face-to-face with the ideal of love and fleeting innocence as well as a version of herself she may never again become, the events that unfold during this particular summer vacation are the events that shape Isabelle and her tenacious, yet completely aloof understanding of love, sex, passion and pleasure, forever.
While the film premiered at last years Cannes International Film Festival, Young & Beautiful was unable to win the illustrious Palme D’Or, instead holding on to its ‘in competition’ nomination and watching its French relative, the instant cult classic Blue Is The Warmest Color take away the prize instead. While both films are from France and equally deal with young women’s integration into a world of sexuality and the deep complexities of love, each film comments differently on the expectations of relationships and the harsh realties between the difference of love and lust. The irony of the two films lies in the exposure and expectations each film connotes. Blue, one of the most pronounced love stories of the last decade, gained its stark reputation thanks to the graphic lesbian sex scenes between its two stars and their prosthetic genitals. While Young & Beautiful is a film that follows the actions of an underage prostitute and her inability to accept love or the deep notions of human interactions with or without intercourse, Blue was the one that gained all the controversy. Young & Beautiful‘s protagonist Isabelle experiences a plethora of sexual preferences, from animalistic suedo-machoism, to gentle moments of tender affection, Isabelle’s sexual memoir is highly dependent on her disconnection with herself and her misunderstood sexuality. Amidst sessions masterbating and boyfriends, Isabelle is less concerned than her search of the orgasm, and more preoccupied with the sexual experiences and the longing to be touched.
Youth is the topic under extreme scrutiny in François Ozon’s latest sexual marvel of a film. Although many may see the film as a rendezvous towards exploring the psyche behind Isabelle’s choice to being a prostitute, Ozon is interested much more on the idea of normal people enacting their suppressed desires to leading lives as outcasts, vagabonds and social rejects, for no good reason at all. Young & Beautiful is a brutal film starved of reasoning and logic and saturated with fundamental desires of action, spontaneity and the idea of ‘want’.
Young & Beautiful radiants in its script. Elegantly written, Isabelle is at the centre of many of the revelations revealed in the film and the ways in which the characters progress. Her relationship between her brother is one that draws direct comparisons to a younger version of Brendan (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy (Carey Mulligan) in Shame, in the ways they share their sexual experiences and how they interact and have an unconditional love for one another, despite their ability to directly hurt each other. Scenes involving Isabelle and her mother Sylvie (Geraldine Palihas) are some in the best of the film, and how two women’s lives of deceit and manipulation can differ so much. Isabelle interacts mostly with men, with the exception of her mother. Her relationship between her most beloved client Georges (Johan Leysen), an elderly business man who spends more time acknowledging the immense youthful beauty consuming Isabelle, provides the film with the closest thing we have to a love story. Additional scenes of Isabelle with her stepfather Patrick (Federic Pierrot), a therapist (Serge Hefez), and an unexpected client near the end of the film delivers poignant insight on the director’s expectation of the imagination and impacts they have on reality.
Ozon does a masterful job of elevating drama, even if it is ever so slightly. His strength lies in his nuanced ability to change the perspectives of characters and surrounding events, with very little change of aesthetics or without completely changing the dynamics of characters. Ozon’s greatest talent in Young & Beautiful lies in his arresting portrait of a young woman’s whose life is spiraling out of control without any rhyme or reason, and his ability to convince audience members that the moment her lifestyle is challenged with the normalities of society, it is society who must adapt, and not Isabelle.
Young & Beautiful is an intoxicating perfume of a film that will linger with you far longer than you’d expect. Melancholic and haunting in its depiction of a woman so sexually in-charge and liberated with the idea that she knows exactly who she is, Isabelle gives Joe in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga a run for her money.
The film may follows many of the obvious characteristics of a currently sexually liberated French narrative, including the infamous house party/night club scene and the addition of the talented synthpop French band M83 making an appearance on the soundtrack. Young & Beautiful is a quiet film, a film that will have you looking at the mirror, asking yourself just how far you will go for exactly what you want. Beauty is completely subjective, but on the subject of Young & Beautiful, beautiful is just one word you could use to describe Ozon’s precious cinematic masterpiece.
Night Film Reviews: 9.5 Out of 10 Stars.
Is Young & Beautiful better than Blue is the Warmest Color or is its essence fleeting and feeling more overdone? How are the performances? Does Ozon succeed with his portrait of a woman unsure with her sexual powers? Leave your comments, thoughts and ideas below!