Vacant, Sad Sexual Journey in ‘Young & Beautiful’

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Average: 5 (2 votes) Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – “Young & Beautiful” may have people rethinking the phrase, “oh, to be young and beautiful again.” Well, maybe the “young” part, since we seldom don’t hear lamentations of the loss of beauty. Here’s a film that reminds us that wisdom not only comes with age, but also with mistakes. It also serves as a reminder that in our youth, we often get stuck in irreversibly bad patterns that hurt ourselves and the ones who love us. Writer/director Francois Ozon’s latest leaves us to decide whether or not the young and beautiful protagonist has any regret for her rash and vacant erotic adventures.

The film opens on a teenage girl relaxing topless on a beach in France, while a younger boy peeps through binoculars from the tree line above her. She is seventeen-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) and he is her curious brother, Victor (Fantin Ravat), who are both of vacationing with their mother, Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas) and stepfather, Patric (Frédéric Pierrot) in a beach house they are sharing with some friends. The nosey Victor agrees to cover for Isabelle as she sets out to lose her virginity to a handsome young German named Felix (Lucas Prisor), but only if she tells him anything. 

It isn’t very clear why this is Isabelle’s summer goal. We don’t see her taking about sex with friends or looking at Kama Sutra books. We don’t even see her looking for the attention of any particular boys, not even Felix. Ozon does show her humping a pillow on her bed, a natural act of discovery for all teens. When “it” does happen with Felix, it is expectedly painful for Isabelle. We watch as she tunes out, waiting for this supposed passage of womanhood to come to an end. 

Marine Vacth
Isabelle (Marine Vacth) in ‘Young & Beautiful’
Photo credit: IFC Films

Although that first experience left her cold, the already-emotionally-withdrawn Isabelle sets out to investigate her own sexuality in her own private manner. She makes her presence known as an online prostitute, going by Lea, and meeting predominately older men at fancy hotels. It takes some awkward afternoon encounters (and online porn homework) with several clients to get the hang of it, but soon enough Isabelle develops her own method of pleasing men.  

One recurring client is Georges (Johan Leysen, “The American”), an older married man who is attracted to Isabelle’s youth and beauty, treating her gently albeit with a hint of possessiveness. Her rendezvous are a secret to her family, who she lives with while attending college, until a tragic event occurs during one of her hotel visits. 

Here is where Ozon shifts his story slightly, with the emotionally distraught Sylvie struggling to understand her daughter’s behavior. The problem is Isabelle can’t even explain why she’s lived this secret life. She wasn’t necessarily reckless and it’s not like she needs the money, since her family is pretty well off. It doesn’t look like she had been enjoying her pimp-free appointments all that much either. The draw could’ve been the amount of attention her beauty garnered, yet with such a detached disposition making it difficult for Isabelle to show any real yearning for romance or a relationship beyond carnal activities, it’s hard to say.

Ozon leaves us to decide for ourselves where Isabelle is in all this. It’s not easy to land a discernible conclusion, though. She clearly is confused by her potentially dangerous (and damaging) endeavors as well. It’s an open-ended portrait of a hardened young woman who may or not come out of her addictive descent to become a semi-functional adult. The director separates his film in four seasonal chapters, starting with “Summer” and using the other three seasons to differentiate Isabelle’s year-long journey, accompanied by musical selections by Francoise Hardy (no Lana Del Rey can be found here). 

The first two seasons capture Isabelle’s sexual deflowering and eventual steps to promiscuity as some unidentifiable mission. Considering what we’ve seen in the last couple of years from the likes of “Blue is the Warmest Color” and Lars von Trier’s two “Nymphomaniac” films, there is definitely a familiarity to this film, especially seeing yet another admittedly young and beautiful European woman. There is more deliberation though in the female protagonists of those films, leaving the only commonality between Isabelle and those two protagonists is their youth and beauty. 

Géraldine Pailhas, Marine Vacth
Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas) Comforts Isabelle in ‘Young & Beautiful’
Photo credit: IFC Films

Isabelle’s is a purely exploratory venture, showing very little sign of realization except one breakdown scene with her mother and a revelatory meeting with George’s wife, Alice (placed with great nuance by Charlotte Rampling). They meet when Isabelle relapses and decides to revisit her habit after a drought - again, we’re not sure why, but it sure feels like an alcoholic returning to a tavern for one more drink. Ozon writes the scene with Alice in quite an unconventional manner. We expect the wife to be furious, but there is a sense of awakening and closure for her and, possibly, both of them. Once again though, it’s hard to figure Isabelle out. Will she go back to prostitution or will she move on and open herself up to a reciprocation relationship? Hard to tell. 

The strength of “Young & Beautiful” can be found in its second act (“Winter” and “Spring”), particularly in the powerful performances by Vacth and Palihas. There’s typical teenage daughter/mother contention, with Palihas’ Sylvie completely at a loss as to why Isabelle would take this immoral path. They’re clearly not close to begin with, but Isabelle’s promiscuity certainly tests any trust or closeness they had. It’s a chance for the condemning Sylvie to access where she is at, considering Isabelle is on to her own recent infidelity. Vacth indeed lives up to the film’s title, with a vulnerable and hypnotic presence that delves beyond outward appearances. She remains an enigma throughout, boosting her hypnotic draw all the more. We feel for her, judge her, and want to save her; all at the same time. 

“Young & Beautiful” debuted at last year’s Cannes film festival, as “Jeune et Jolie”, and it could be seen as a cousin to Ozon’s most popular film “Swimming Pool.” This film is just as interesting and provocative, but its depiction of an askewed young woman using her beauty to test her sexuality is more confusing and sad than it is titillating. 

“Young & Beautiful” continued its limited release in Chicago on May 16th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Marine Vatch, Fantin Ravat, Geraldine Pailhas, Frederic Pierrot, Johan Leysen and Charlotte Rampling. Written and directed by François Ozon. Not Rated

© 2014 David J. Fowlie,

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