Young & Beautiful premiered at Cannes last year to favourable reviews. The reaction was similarly fine when it appeared at its first North America festival at TIFF. Director Francois Ozon is a festival favourite, acclaimed for his mastery in working with actresses, so it surprised no one that he was able to draw a star-making performance out of model Marine Vacth. Erotic but tasteful, the film seems quintessentially French, with a built-in art house audience.
Young and Beautiful concentrates in a quite straight-forward manner on what happens to the gorgeous Isabelle (Marine Vacth) over four seasons in her life as she transitions from a 17-year-old virgin into a remarkably experienced young woman.
What Isabelle decides to do is to become a high priced call girl in Paris. Why does she do it? She’s from an affluent family so she doesn’t need the money. Nor is her mother, brother or stepfather mistreating her. Ozon never reveals Isabelle’s motivation to us, nor does the perfectly cast Marine Vacth (in her first starring role) show much emotion until nearly the film’s denouement.
We watch as she rather coolly accepts her deflowering by a nice young German tourist—and then nearly immediately rejects him. Summer passes to the fall as Isabelle responds to rude advances by older men by deciding to become a high-class prostitute. She plays this game until one of her clients, a stylish elderly man named Georges, dies while making love to her.
Her winter is spent dealing with the consequences as her mother, beloved younger brother and concerned stepfather find out the truth about her activities from the police as they investigate Georges’ death. In the spring, the still enigmatic Isabelle appears to be adjusting back to “normal,” until she rejects another nice boyfriend and begins to find clients again.
Like Isabelle, Young & Beautiful is stylish and impossible to understand. We’re left with a chic psychological mystery tale, which ends with a punch thanks to the presence in the penultimate scene of the brilliant world-weary Charlotte Rampling.
One possible explanation: French auteurs since the time of Truffaut and Godard have rejected psychological portraits of characters as being too reductive. Protagonists simply do things because of impulse or the weather or an undefined emotion; one can ascribe a reason but the world isn’t a reasonable place, is it?
Another? It’s the non-surrealist version of Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel’s masterpiece about prostitution, which starred the young & beautiful Catherine Deneuve.
Young & Beautiful is sexy and mysterious. You won’t understand it but nobody expects you do so. It is erotic in the 21st century sense—affirming the exciting life force of youth while denying any attempt at connectivity. Will you enjoy the film? Yes—or you’ll be morally appalled. But you won’t be bored.