Young & Beautiful: Cannes Review
François Ozon's mesmerizing drama, screening in competition, centers on a high school "Belle de Jour" played in a luminous turn by emerging star Marine Vacth.
CANNES – The mysteries of adolescence, and in particular, the sense of control and power that can accompany a gorgeous girl’s discovery of her sexuality, are explored with hypnotic focus in Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie). This aptly titled latest film from François Ozon is both psychologically probing and unerringly elegant in its nonjudgmental restraint, driven by a transfixing performance from the incandescent Marine Vacth that will land her major exposure on the casting radar.
Given that much of the plot centers on the double life led by 17-year-old Isabelle (Vacth), who drifts from the loss of her virginity into prostitution while still a student, superficial comparisons with the 1967 Luis Bunuel classic Belle de Jour are inevitable. But the drama fits snugly into the body of work of writer-director Ozon, whose darkly humorous early films like Sitcom, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks all featured teenagers encountering sexual adventure with little moral encumbrance. The intoxicating allure of youthful sensuality also was a key element of Swimming Pool.
The new, strikingly mature film marks a natural progression from Ozon’s arresting 2012 work, In the House, in which a male teen was the agent provocateur. However, unlike that playful Hitchcockian quasi-thriller, Young & Beautiful is both more carnal and more sober, suggesting the danger and fragility inherent in the central character’s experimentation while keeping the dramatic intensity subdued.
The story takes place over a year, divided into four seasonal chapters. Each of them is punctuated at the conclusion by a song from the 1960s or ’70s by French pop’s most iconic purveyor of wistful romance and introspective disillusionment, Francoise Hardy.
The opening visual invites us to participate as voyeurs in Isabelle’s transformative journey as her kid brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) watches through binoculars while she sunbathes topless on a beach near the family’s summer vacation villa. Contrary to what this intro suggests, Isabelle is relaxed and uninhibited around Victor. His fascination with his sister’s blossoming sexuality gives him a complicit stake in her incipient fling with handsome German tourist Felix (Lucas Prisor).
In one of the film’s most unsettlingly beautiful scenes, Isabelle watches herself as she sheds her virginity on the beach one night, returning home to matter-of-factly inform Victor, “It’s done.” That she has no further use for Felix is a foretaste of the unconventional path her emotionless search for identity will take.
In the autumn section, during which Isabelle embarks on a secret life of turning tricks after school at rendezvous hotels, Ozon cuts together students from her class in direct-to-camera readings from the Rimbaud poem “No One’s Serious at Seventeen.” The excitement and infinite possibilities of adolescence are implicit. But there’s a calm sense of purpose in the way Isabelle approaches her transgressions that makes them all the more disturbing.
Whether being treated curtly by an arrogant john, used purely as an object of pleasure or regarded with the desire softened by protectiveness of a rueful sixtyish man (Johan Leysen) who becomes her one regular customer, Isabelle retains a veneer of detachment. In a performance characterized by its poise and composure, Vacth signals the girl’s vulnerability with subtle economy.
When events take a more dramatic turn, it’s not in the expected way. But winter brings exposure of her clandestine enterprise, expanding from the largely private experience of Isabelle to her interaction with her family as they deal with the fallout.
A hard partier in her own youth, Isabelle’s mother, Sylvie (Geraldine Pailhas), has the toughest time coming to terms with her daughter’s inscrutable choices. The girl’s liberal upbringing, relative financial independence and seeming lack of problems make her an unobvious candidate for such a radical form of rebellion. Her stepfather, Patrick (Frederic Pierrot), is more mellow in his efforts to manage the situation though equally clueless. Isabelle tries to exploit that aspect in a sly scene in which she seizes on his concern as an opportunity to flirt.
Without venturing near the territory of a sociological tract, Ozon makes perceptive observations about the way young women are subconsciously conditioned to regard their beauty as a commodity to be leveraged. Having experienced the satisfaction of being a high-earner -- without ever revealing a purpose or need for those accumulated funds -- Isabelle brings a sharpened understanding of the transactional nature of everything, from therapy to babysitting to the kisses that one of prepubescent Victor’s female classmates is selling for five euros apiece.
In the spring section, which concludes the film, Isabelle halfheartedly dabbles in standard teen romance. But while it’s clear that something has profoundly changed in his main character, Ozon, to his credit, is not interested in drawing black-and-white conclusions as to where she’s headed. While aspects of sorrow, responsibility, regret and even confusion are evident, the internalized nature of the girl’s experience lends the film a dramatic ambiguity that keeps it consistently intriguing. Nowhere more so perhaps than in an exquisite final scene with an older woman (Charlotte Rampling) seeking answers to her own questions and pondering the different girl that she herself might have been.
Shot with a steady gaze and an absence of fussy movement by Pascal Marti, and edited with graceful fluidity by Laure Gardette, the production has impeccable visual crispness, echoed in Ozon’s judicious use of Philippe Rombi’s melancholy orchestral score.
Performances are excellent throughout, particularly from Pailhas. But the one people will be talking about is Vacth. Frequently recalling a young Nastassja Kinski, she registers on-camera as a beauty of extraordinary luminosity, her character simultaneously aloof and tender, knowingly purposeful and adrift.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Marine Vacth, Geraldine Pailhas, Frederic Pierrot, Fantin Ravat, Johan Leysen, Charlotte Rampling, Nathalie Richard, Djedje Apali, Lucas Prisor, Laurent Delbecque, Jeanne Ruff, Serge Hefez
Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, Nars Films, France 2 Cinema, Foz
Director-screenwriter: François Ozon
Producers: Eric & Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Pascal Marti
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Music: Philippe Rombi
Editor: Laure Gardette
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 93 minutes.