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”).
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Perhaps it’s that capacity for emotional numbness that explains, in a script that refuses to dispense pat backstory motives or insights, why Isabelle takes up prostitution once she’s back in Paris. Deploying the tech savvy that distinguishes her generation, she sets up a website and uses a spare cell phone to book meetings with johns in plush hotel rooms for sex at 300€ a pop (nearly $400). No one quite buys it when she says she’s 20 (Vacth is, in fact, 23 in real life), and she learns little tricks of the trade the hard way, such as always getting the money upfront. But eventually, Isabelle proves as adept at the work as she is at hiding it from her family and friends.
With economical brushstrokes, Ozon sketches a rogue’s gallery of clients; some are little twisted, some a little sad, but audiences expecting a violent, moralizing shoe to drop with a burst of violence are in for a disappointment. Nevertheless, something disturbing and unexpected happens while Isabelle is servicing courtly regular Georges (Johan Leysen), one of the few she seems to actually like, and she’s shaken to the core and closes up shop.
As Isabelle’s baffled mother, Sylvie, the ever-sturdy Geraldine Pailhas (astutely cast to resemble Vacth physically) is first among equals in the pic’s strong supporting ensemble; mothers everywhere will wince in sympathy at her violent, wounded reaction when she learns her daughter’s secret. After this devastating revelation tumbles out, Ozon never descends into melodrama and even finds room for humor, as in an impeccably played scene in which Sylvie drags Isabelle to see a shrink (Serge Hefez, an actual psychologist who consulted on the film), who shrugs in pragmatic agreement when Isabelle suggests their sessions could be paid for with her impounded prostitution earnings. Sweetly humorous exchanges between Isabelle and Victor, completely convincing as affectionate siblings so close they barely know each other, likewise provide light relief. At the other end of the scale, Charlotte Rampling adds ballast in a key cameo appearance.
But it’s Vacth who really owns the film, some feat considering her character is so elusive, slippery as smoke, and yet more than just a cipher for screwed-up kids today. Obviously she’s extravagantly, wantonly photogenic (a quality exploited in full by Pascal Marti’s impeccable lensing), but she also gives a proper performance, especially in the final reels when Isabelle starts to feel the irretrievability of the innocence she so brutally cast aside. She’s no Lolita, shunted around by bad luck and predatory men, and although she has a sneaky streak, she’s not evil, either — just someone who makes choices, perhaps poor ones, and then deals with the consequences with surprising maturity.
Harking back to the use of a Francoise Hardy tune in “8 Women,” Ozon matches four of the Gallic chaunteuse’s bittersweet songs to each of the film’s seasons to provide wry, lyrical counterpoint, as does Rimbaud’s poem “No One’s Serious at Seventeen,” which gets some charmingly articulate analysis from real 17-year-olds in an unscripted schoolroom scene. Editing by Laure Gardette (who cut “In the House” and “Potiche” for Ozon) is especially adroit in a pro tech package.