Film Review: Young & Beautiful

Like a cinematic Scheherezade, François Ozon continues to hypnotize us with his masterful storytelling in this deliciously voyeuristic phase of his career, this time showcasing a true overnight star, the exquisite Marine Vacth.


At first glance, someone like Isabelle (Marine Vacth) would seem to be the most average, if stunningly lovely, of high-school girls, with her comfortable background, loving family, studies and friends. However, when alone on the streets of Paris, she self-transforms into an elegantly clad, soignée young lady, confidently striding into the city's poshest hotels. Seventeen-year-old Isabelle, you see, is a high-priced prostitute, something she has chosen to do of her own free will with the mere use of her cellphone.

Writer-director Francois Ozon continues in the absolutely riveting, ultra-voyeuristic vein he carried off with such consummate confidence in In the House with this equally mesmerizing study of yet one more adolescent with a deeply secret life. Young & Beautiful is divided into four seasons, each of them accompanied by a different song by that 1960s mistress of youthful, romantic angst, Françoise Hardy. With its handsome, plush production values and sleek photography and editing, the film is almost inhumanly perfect surface-wise, yet Isabelle's actions have volcanic, hideous consequences when one of her johns, Georges, a kindly, dapper older gentleman (Johan Leysen) who alone gives her the kind of attention this strangely withdrawn and glacial girl seems to need, dies in the saddle.

Isabelle’s secret is revealed to her family and all hell breaks loose. Yet, however much horrified chaos engulfs her, she remains weirdly calm and wholly unrepentant, causing her beautiful, adulterous mother (a wonderful Géraldine Pailhas) to cry, "Sometimes you frighten me!" One rare key to her character offered by Ozon would seem to be a quote from Rimbaud she reads in class: “Nothing is serious when you're seventeen.” Besides the death of Georges, Isabelle's real tragedy is her inability to go back to being a normal teenager, which has heartbreaking consequences for her new, "appropriate" boyfriend, a bewildered classmate. Much of the film is cannily without music, but towards the end, Philippe Rombi's piercing score lends an apt melancholy which matches that of Isabelle's looks.

None of this would work at all without the right Isabelle, and Ozon has been miraculously lucky in the casting of Vacth. One of those utterly gorgeous, utterly self-possessed beauties which only France seems to produce so abundantly, she is also something quite special, possessing a preternatural poise and wisdom beyond her years, along with her obvious status as a sublime camera subject. At times, she's like the surpassingly lovely Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box, a totally amoral man-trap, with an infinitely potent mystery. With rare, uncanny insight, Ozon limns her various relationships: the often combative one with her mother who desperately confesses to being "wild" like her in her own youth; the uneasy one with her stepfather (a very good Frédéric Pierrot,) with the two of them apprehending each other unexpectedly in the nude in the too-close family quarters of even their palatial Paris apartment; the slightly duplicitous one with her best girlfriend who warily considers losing her virginity (something Isabelle early on takes care of with frightening efficacy on summer holiday with a German tourist). Most telling and touching is her connection with her little brother (Fantin Ravat), with whom she once shared everything and, once her sexual life begins, then becomes much less confiding. Finally, there is her climactic encounter with the dead man's wife, played by Ozon favorite Charlotte Rampling with every bit of the elegant élan and worldly resignation you'd expect.

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