A carefully constructed work that reflects the style and pace of previous films from director Francois Ozon, Young and Beautiful tracks a 12-month period in the life of 17-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) as she explores her sexuality by taking up the world’s oldest profession, unbeknownst to her parents or friends. Typically in films exploring young women turning to prostitution, such actions are driven by financial necessity or social circumstances. However, what is most interesting about this particular story is that neither Ozon, nor Isabelle herself, offer any reason for her decision. Safely entrenched in a French middle class family that comprises mother Sylvie (Geraldine Pailhas), step-father Patrick (Frederic Pierrot) and younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), Isabelle does not want for much and shows little interest in the money she earns. What results is a psychological study of sorts as we try to unravel the motivations of a young woman who gives very little away.
The story is told over the course of four seasons, kicking off in summer with Isabelle and her family enjoying a beachside vacation. When we first meet Isabelle, she is sunbathing topless on the sand, unaware that Victor is watching her through binoculars from above the beach. Whilst their relationship seems strained at first, we quickly learn that the bond between the two siblings is actually quite strong. When Isabelle loses her virginity on the eve of her 17th birthday, the experience leaves her somewhat underwhelmed and seems to serve as the catalyst for her explorations into the world of prostitution. Somewhat disconnected from her well-meaning but misguided mother and displaying a disenchantment with people in general and sex in particular – there is no obvious motivation behind her actions – Isabelle is able to go about her business with impunity until an unfortunate incident brings the police to her door.
Ozon, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to be making a statement about the hypocrisies surrounding morality and sex. At one point, Sylvie is encouraging her daughter to go out and meet men, even leaving condoms for her, but is then outraged when she finds out that Isabelle has been doing exactly that, only charging for the pleasure of her company. Why is it okay for her to seek sex with men for pleasure but not for profit? Furthermore, Isabelle is protected from prosecution because, at 17, she is considered a victim in the various interactions with her customers. The fact that somebody can go from being a victim to a criminal simply because they have turned 18 seems ludicrous and it is a point well-made given the fact that Isabelle is not beholden to anybody; she works alone and has not been coerced into anything. Furthermore, Sylvie’s efforts at occupying the moral high ground are undermined by the fact that she seems to be having an affair with family friend.
Of course, the film also has plenty to say about men and the various sexual and emotional insecurities they possess that enable Isabelle’s business to flourish. Isabelle’s beauty mesmerises all around her and results in a few awkward moments – such as Victor watching her masturbate and Patrick lingering just a moment too long when he accidentally stumbles upon her in the shower. However, whilst there is nudity and numerous sex scenes, Ozon never fixates on the flesh; a contrast to the approach in other recent releases such as Nymphomaniac or Blue is the Warmest Colour. In many ways though, Isabelle is a typical teenager; she attends high school and treats her parents the way any teen might. That is, she sees them as the enemy and is reluctant to engage with them unless absolutely necessary. However, she never blames her parents for the choices she makes and admits to the therapist she is forced to see that her mother provides her with everything she wants.
The tone and pace of Young and Beautiful is akin to Ozon’s earlier works such as Swimming Pool and In the House, rather than his more outlandish Potiche. It is sedate but never dull and his refusal to indulge in backstory or justifications for Isabelle’s actions is evidence of his faith in an audience to make up their own mind. With a hauntingly effective performance from newcomer Vacth, an ambiguity that maintains intrigue and a fabulous final scene featuring Charlotte Rampling, this is a coming-of-age story that is refreshingly devoid of simplicity and predictability in its exploration of identity and sexuality.