Tuesday, April 22, 2014

YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL: Ozon's newest tracks a teenage prostitute & creates a stunning new star

"Ohhhh... she's beautiful!" my spouse whispered as the camera lingered over the gorgeous and leggy new actress (whom we'll bet becomes an overnight star), Marine Vacth, who plays and quite well, the lead in François Ozon's new movie YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL (Jeune & jolie). M. Ozon handed me my favorite film of 2013, In the House, so I suppose one cannot expect a filmmaker as prolific as he to come up with something that good every time. (He's made 17 full-length films in as many years, plus myriad short movies.) Though it will not be my favorite film for 2014, still, this one is plenty good enough: thoughtful, stylish, intelligent, well-acted by all concerned and with a theme -- teenage prostitution -- that should certainly corral a portion of the arthouse crowd.

Ozon, shown at right, is up to his usual tricks here by not insisting on what point is being made. He lays it all out, very well, very intelligently and artfully, and lets us make of it what we will. This does not mean that he is fudging or waffling, however. He's just not a filmmaker who likes to drive his points home. His movie bears more than passing resemblance to a film made for French TV and known over here as Student Services (Mes chères études), by Emmanuelle Bercot, about a college student who hooks on the side to help pay her bills. In Young & Beautiful, however, our heroine is getting paid for sex not out of necessity but more, perhaps, for the sense of power, control and occupation the trade allows her. She is also exploring what sex is and means, for both her and her partners, whilst separating it rather thoroughly from any emotional content.

It's that latter point that will, down the road, present the most trouble for Isabelle (the character played by Ms Vacth, above), who begins the film while on a family vacation by getting involved with a slightly older German student (Lucas Prisor) and losing her virginity with barely so much as a goodbye. She evidently felt nothing pleasurable or otherwise -- as I suspect lots of young girls these days experience with their first time (and maybe always have). With the young, everything is rushed.

Yet Isabelle knows that this sex thing is marketable with men, and soon she is surfing the web, posting availability and finding partners who will pay (though not always as much as was promised). We see her engaged in various couplings with men quite different in type and age. Her favorite partner, in fact, is the older man, Georges, played by Johan Leysen (above); the rest are all just johns.

What happens in the film is both expected (in the ways society handles this sort of thing) and not (in the manner that Ozon handles his characterization of Isabelle). Thanks to his quietly probing but never insistent viewpoint and to Ms Vacth's very believable characterization -- not exactly confused but certainly exploring: Isabelle is only 17, remember -- we end up with an unusual film that offers a hot-button topic done coolly and credibly.

As is often the case with Ozon, there are bonuses aplenty, starting with the appearance, late in the film, of Charlotte Rampling, in a small but wonderful role that the actress fills to the brim. There is also a lovely, sad chapter around mid-way that explores Isabelle' relationship and love/sex life with a boy her own age (Laurent Delbecque, above). The difference in maturity between the genders, along with the characterization of the girl's inner life against the boy's outer has rarely been shown so clearly and pointedly.

Isabelle's family, too, is shown in all its ravaged glory. Mom (Géraldine Pailhas, above, left) is divorced, but step-dad (the ever-present and always fine Frédéric Pierrot) is a decent guy, while (Fantin Ravat) is everything you'd want and expect in a kid brother -- and twice as adorable. Yes, this family has its problems, but because it is made up of relatively decent people, you can't look to it for anything approaching a full explanation of Isabelle's unusual behavior.

In fact, considering some of Ozon's visuals of Paris (such as the one above), you might more helpfully look at society, media and culture for explanation. In any case, Young & Beautiful -- from Sundance Selects/IFC Films and running 95 minutes -- opens here in the USA this Friday, April 25, in New York City at the IFC Center. I can't find it playing anywhere in the Los Angeles area -- that's surprising -- but as it will appear on VOD simultaneous with its theatrical release, you should be able to view it in practically all major markets across the USA.

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