She was just 17: Francois Ozon’s provocative drama introduces ‘Young & Beautiful’ Marine Vacth
After the mesmerizing In the House, French auteur François Ozon has done it again with the equally riveting Young & Beautiful, which opens in New York on April 25. It's the can't-take-your-eyes-away tale of Isabelle (Marine Vacth), a teenage girl old beyond her years, who swiftly rids herself of her virginity and, with the help of the Internet, effortlessly slides into prostitution. Cellphones have now replaced pimps and she finds it all too easy to arrange lush assignations in plush hotel rooms with an array of well-heeled horn-dogs. However, when a favored client expires during a session, her secret life is exposed, wreaking havoc with her life, her mother and her stepfather.
I met with the dapper, always teasingly puckish Ozon for our fourth interview together (a director record for this journalist), in a sleek hotel in New York’s Soho. As I was settling myself in the lobby, awaiting my turn to speak with him, I looked up from my phone to see his former star, Catherine Deneuve, having lunch at a table right in front of me. It was, somehow, just like a scene from one of his films.
Film Journal International: What inspired you to make this film?
François Ozon: The idea came to me during the shooting of In the House, because I had a lot of pleasure working with those young actors. It's strange, because I said to myself that since Under the Sand all my characters were very often older people or people of my age and I realized that all my first movies were about adolescents. So I wanted to come back to this period of time to have a new distance, and after doing In the House, which was about young boys, I wanted to do a portrait of a young girl of today.
FJI: I have noticed that with you, as well as other filmmakers, like Hitchcock and Buñuel, as you get older—with In the House and now this film—there seems to be less "in the moment" kind of storytelling and it has become more fascinatingly voyeuristic.
FO: Oh, you think as we become older we become more voyeuristic? [laughs] I've always been a voyeur, even when I was young. That's why I do movies. It's true someone like Hitchcock didn't do a lot of things in his own life, but in his movies he was able to show things he couldn't do. Buñuel was also voyeuristic like me, but he had a real sexual life, unlike Hitchcock.
FJI: I'm not saying you don't have a life, but your observation of people and their behavior becomes so strong and pulls you in, so mesmerizing, so we are really watching. Marine Vacth is an amazing camera subject, as well as an amazing actress. How did you find her?
FO: She's a great actress, very mysterious and perfect for this film. She has a kind of secret, and the whole idea of the film was to give the opportunity not to judge her but to try to understand her. It's a story I had written quite easily, and the arc of it was to have the death of this man [Johan Leysen]—her client—make this young girl face reality. Because she's like the pleasure principle and suddenly she discovers the principle of reality, and I knew I wanted to end the film with the scene between these two women—his prostitute and his wife—face-to-face.
Johan Leysen is a Dutch actor. It was quite difficult to find the right actor for this role, because I wanted someone old but sexy too, not too disgusting. It was important that she could not maybe fall in love, but really have tenderness and excitement from this man. He looks like an American actor to me.
I saw many, many girls for the part of Isabelle, but for me it was quite obvious when I met Marine that she was exactly what I was looking for, with this sadness, this melancholy in her eyes, and the fact she was somewhat hurt at the same time was very interesting for this part.
FJI: You French keep producing these wonderful girls—fantastic actresses with the sublime faces of women, not girls. Had she done much acting before?
FO: She was a model and hadn't done a lot before, just some small parts in films, and now she has many propositions. She is really a quality star; not many actresses have this kind of gift.
FJI: Her contentious relationship with her still quite young and beautiful mother is one of the most fascinating parts of the film.
FO: Géraldine Pailhas is here with me now in New York and she's a great actress who was in one of my earlier films, 5x2, as the girl at the end. It was interesting to work with her now because she has a daughter of sixteen, so she was very involved in the story. For example, in the scene when she has to beat Isabelle, she was very helpful. She had a very good idea for this scene. In the script, she was beating her and Géraldine said, "That's not a problem for me to do that, but as a mother, after doing that I would say, 'Please forgive me.' I used that for the scene and I think it's very powerful because you understand the ambiguity and complexity of their relationship.
FJI: It's much deeper than in a film like Mildred Pierce, where the daughter is just evil and the mother only suffers.
FO: Yes, exactly, here there’s a kind of reality between the mother and daughter, which was not the case there. I also wanted to show the uncomfortable role of her stepfather in the new, reconstituted family. It can be difficult for men suddenly to try to find their place as the authority figure, as a stepfather. The children don't respect him enough and I wanted to show the difficulty of being part of a new family, and also the sexual tension with an adolescent daughter.
FJI: Your use of Françoise Hardy songs is so interesting. Why her?
FO: I've always liked her, and for the French she is really the essence of melancholy, especially about adolescence because she speaks about disillusionment and the ending of romantic love. This is her specialty, so it was quite obvious for me to use her songs in the film. But when she saw it, she said, "My songs have nothing to do with prostitution!" She's more than 70, quite sick and quite misanthropic, very complex. It's difficult for her.
FJI: Your film addresses something quite important, the fact that children now are no longer children, with their own secret lives because of the Internet.
FO: Yes, it was very important to tell this story today, because when I was a teenager all this technology didn't exist. Children are now exposed to things about sexuality, and if you want to see porn, it's very easy. I wanted to show that it's quite easy, with three clicks, to put your phone number and meet people on the Internet. That's why she does it, and I wanted to show this freedom all young people have today. They don't realize how it can be dangerous. She was very lucky because she does prostitution in the story for one or two months, and because she has a lot of money, she chooses what she does and is not obligated. But I didn't want to do an apology for prostitution, saying that it's glamorous. It's just one particular story, but it actually ends very badly because she's part of the death of a man.
FJI: Isabelle's relationship with her brother is interesting, and very true, too.
FO: It was important to show the child and the adolescent, with maybe three years of difference between them. But it's a gap at this age, because she's discovering her sexuality and he's still a child, so they can't communicate anymore. I wanted to show at the beginning of the film their complicity, but after her first sexual relationship, she keeps her distance and stops telling him her secrets. In a certain way, she wants to protect him. She knows she's feeling very deeply these emotions which he can't understand, but at end of the film you realize he understood everything.
FJI: Many will find the character of Isabelle quite cold and glacée, as they say.
FO: It's true. She is cold, she's protecting herself. But I think when you are young, very often your sexuality and your emotions are not connected, so you protect yourself. She's very powerful and feels she can control everything, her sexuality, her clients. Suddenly, there's the death of this man and everything is destroyed and she must assume the reality of things. She tries to have a normal life, she tries, but realizes her life before was maybe more exciting and now she knows too much.
FJI: To bring Buñuel up again, some have compared this film to his Belle de Jour.
FO: [laughing and indicating Catherine Denueve seated one table away from us] Belle de jour is there! You know, I watched it again and it's really about fantasy. Because at the end of the film you're not sure if it was reality or a fantasy, and mine is reality. Another big difference is in Belle de Jour she wanted to do prostitution, but in the 1960s you had to go to a brothel. Today, with the Internet, it's easy. Right now, in France, they are trying to change the law against prostitution.
FJI: How was your film received in France?
FO: It received very good reviews and was a big success for this kind of movie. About 700,000 people saw it. In the House was even more, more than one million people.
FJI: Both films are so clever and juicy. Has there been interest from Hollywood in remaking them?
FO: For In the House, I had many propositions to do a remake, but they will probably change the story and do a thriller. With this film, I don't think there will be as much interest. Hollywood financiers want to do what is black-and-white, good or bad, and this film is very ambiguous and complex. You don't have one easy answer as to why she is the way she is.
FJI: Also, America is still terrified of sexuality.
FO: I think it's the producers who are afraid. I think the audiences can understand, they are clever.
FJI: Well, from your early short, my favorite, A Summer Dress, you have never shied away from sexuality! You are so fertile creatively. Do you ever experience writer's block?
FO: No. I like to do movies, so it's always a pleasure.
FJI: What's next?
FO: My next movie is with Romain Duris, called The New Girlfriend, from a story by Ruth Rendell, an English writer. It's with Anaïs Demoustier, a young French actress who is amazing. Not well-known yet, but she will become so. It's a twisted love story, so after our twisted sex story, it's a melodrama about love.