***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***
So this time François Ozon ventures into the familiar terrain of an ordinary, bourgeois female protagonist's descent into prostitution. While the most popular film on the subject was the great Luis Bunuel's subversive, "Belle De Jour" (1967), a surreal fantasy of a married woman's foray into the business stemming from sheer curiosity and as an awakening and outlet for her repressed sexuality, Ozon's "Young & Beautiful" aka "Jeune & Jolie" (2013) is a horse of a significantly different colour.
Ozon's film chronicles the odyssey of the protagonist, a 17 year old comely, pretty young thing Isabelle (Marine Vacth), right from her deflowering to her subsequent flowering into the world of carnal pleasure and a sense of independence and power that she experiences. The story unfolds over four seasons starting with her summer holidays during which she first experiences freedom by losing her virginity to a handsome young German guy.
Behold the scene on the beach at night when Isabelle gives herself to Felix (Lucas Prisor) but appears to be lost and distracted. She stares at a distance and finds her own self looking back at her. Perhaps it is guilt or the feeling of a loss of innocence; her own innocent self, cut away from her, looking at her with remorseful eyes. Or maybe it could mean that she has lost herself and feels like a changed person, distant from her own self! For the few seconds that she drifts away, all sound is drowned out until she snaps back to reality at the end of the act.
It is hardly in a steady progression that we witness Isabelle's transition to prostitution, as almost in the next instant after her summer vacation and a first sexual experience that leaves her cold, we see her knocking on the door of a client somewhere in the city! She doesn't need the money. She has enough. We later learn it is part of some whim; an experimentation. An experiment that could prove to be dangerous but she decides to play with fire anyway. Her adolescent mind doesn't think it to be that big a deal. In no time it becomes an addiction. She becomes a sought after internet call girl. 300 euros for a single romp with much older men becomes an easy-peasy task.
She gets all kinds of customers. Some are downright kinky and even stingy with payments. Some adventures are unabashed and rough, others are laced with moments of tender affection, particularly with one much older, wrinkled client (Johan Leysen). Almost in a blink of an eye Isabelle slips into a comfort zone. Moral values and consequences of being discovered be damned, she reaches a stage where she doesn't have any qualms about her actions and all these things don't seem to matter.
There appears to be a shift in the very idea of virtuousness not purely from a moral standpoint; that is still secondary, but even from a pragmatic perspective considering risks involved for her as well as her family. After all, hers is a young and vulnerable mind; less reasonable and more adventurous! She is clearly unaware of the potential danger she may be putting herself and her family in, considering she doesn't have a pimp to arrange clients for her, nor does she have any idea of what kind of shady client she may be facing. A general insensitivity and lack of inhibitory factors moulds our protagonist in a manner as to not be bothered by concerns such as these.
The casual atmosphere at home doesn't help much either, with a stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) who seems slightly slow and unaffected by matters, still tries to hold things together. A younger brother (Fantin Ravat) just entering his teens, who has rather candid talks with his older sister about sexuality, even spies at her from a distance as she sunbathes topless on the beach, albeit, probably only out of curiosity.
A mother (Géraldine Pailhas) who may have had a troubled teenage herself, but doesn't exercise much control or is perhaps just too confident and full of trust for her daughter, and oblivious to what a completely free hand can do to a fragile mind. This is a culture where no one bolts the doors of their bedrooms or bathrooms from inside, and the baffled stepfather unwittingly keeps barging in at all wrong timings, leading to some awkward moments!
After the eventual, inevitable discovery of her double life by her family, all hell threatens to break loose, but doesn't quite. In fact, after an initial outburst, things settle down as quickly as they are stirred up. The cat is let out of the bag owing to an unfortunate incident with one of Isabelle's regular clients, and her mother regrets and questions herself "Where did I go wrong?", but she could be having an affair herself! Although there are upsets, soon enough measures are taken to make amends and there are chances given at redemption. Very subtle, restrained handling makes this film one up from the rest of the crowd as Ozon saves his film from spiraling down into unwanted melodrama.
Marine Vacth delivers a performance for the ages. Only her nuanced and ambiguous expressions sometimes border on the inert and rarely convey a clear emotion and hence her act could be easily misunderstood to be inadequate. However, the crux of Ozon's film is very much her lack of clarity surrounding the ease at which she treads into dangerous grounds. Although somewhat provocative, Ozon manages to keep things grounded with his crisp, assured storytelling and arresting images captured with tremendous beauty by Pascal Marti.
Post the incident "Jeune & Jolie" veers toward some more ambiguities albeit with larger happenings hinting at a nice, neat wrap-up. But just as we near the end, Ozon throws in a surprise with a delicious climax featuring a splendid cameo by the ever elegant Charlotte Rampling. It is stuff like this that reinforces our faith in intelligent, independent cinema.