Right around her 17th birthday, Isabelle loses her virginity to a handsome, eager young German on the beach where she and her family have been staying for summer vacation. By fall, she’s leading a double life as a high-priced prostitute, taking late-afternoon appointments to avoid drawing her parents’ suspicion. The leap from total sexual inexperience to the world’s oldest profession is astounding, but François Ozon’s meticulously ambiguous Young & Beautiful doesn’t try to speculate, other than to suggest that Isabelle’s first time left her feeling confused and vaguely unsatisfied. Ozon isn’t interested in playing pop psychologist here, but in treating Isabelle as a particular type of human mystery: The Teenager.
Neatly divided into seasons—typical of Ozon, whose preference for a clean structure surfaced in past films like See The Sea, 8 Women, and 5x2—Young & Beautiful first shows Isabelle (Marine Vacth) sunbathing topless, an early indicator of her instincts as a provocateur. Her late-night tryst with a like-aged German tourist doesn’t seem to make that deep an impression, which may explain why she takes such extreme measures when she gets back home. She meets all sorts of johns, who accept the fantasy of her stated age (20), but she winds up connecting on a more intimate level with Georges (Johan Leysen), a gentlemanly grey fox who could be her grandfather (or great-grandfather, for that matter). An incident with Georges scares her a little, and inevitably puts her into conflict with her mother Sylvie (Geraldine Pailhas), who isn’t quite the moral authority she seems.
From the disturbing opening shot of Isabelle’s younger brother spying on her through binoculars, Young & Beautiful is a film about looking, where the story is told entirely through the eyes. Vacth, a model turned actress, isn’t asked to emote heavily, or break much at all from her enigmatic veneer, but her eyes miss nothing about the hypocrisies of adults and the desire of men (and teenage boys, too) to claim ownership over her. Whether or not she’s fulfilled by her professional adventures—all signs point to “not”—they do give her a palpable feeling of power and agency, in addition to a less garden-variety teen rebellion. Ozon extends a great deal of sympathy to her, but not so much that she’s above reproach; a scene in which she tries to seduce her stepfather paints her as a petulant kid, deliberately provocative in her effort to test the limits of her power.
Ozon tosses an abundance of twisted psychology into the stew, but he leaves the audience to sort it out for themselves. Young & Beautiful has the detached air of other Ozon productions, and Vacth gives so little away as Isabelle that she’s eternally an unsolved problem. The film is a potentially florid coming-of-age story that’s remarkably cool to the touch, not nearly as outrageous in execution as it is by description. Ozon keeps the scale minor-key to a fault, especially given the film’s obvious commonalities with Luis Buñuel’s Belle Du Jour; his main goal seems to be to explicate Isabelle’s psyche with as subtle a hand as possible, and leave it at that. The amount of room the film leaves for discussion is a sign he’s succeeded.