Aside from Pedro Almodóvar, French filmmaker François Ozon may be the most sensitive and sympathetic director of female actors working today. In such films as Under the Sand, 8 Women, Potiche, and his biggest crossover success to date, 2003’s kinky thriller Swimming Pool, Ozon has proved time and again that he isn’t just fascinated by the opposite sex, he wants to portray women as thinking, feeling, three-dimensional characters. Rather than exploiting his heroines through the ”male gaze,” he captures female longings and insecurities and projects them on screen with more complexity than any contemporary male American director I can think of.
Which is exactly what makes his latest import, Young & Beautiful, such a thorny film to grapple with. Ostensibly the story of a disaffected Parisian teenager named Isabelle (Marine Vacth) with a secret life as a prostitute, the film has an obvious touchstone: Luis Buñuel’s dreamlike 1967 S&M fantasy Belle de Jour, which starred Catherine Deneuve as an emotionally chilly housewife who moonlights as a call girl. But while Buñuel’s film burrowed into the psychology of a woman who retreats into a fantasy world of ecstasy and degradation as a form of rebellion against marriage and obedience, Young & Beautiful never offers us a clear explanation of why Isabelle — a child of bourgeois privilege — engages in her taboo double life.
When the film begins, Isabelle and her family are on vacation and, on the eve of her 17th birthday, she loses her virginity in a fling with a handsome German tourist (Lucas Prisor). The deed is over quickly — too quickly for her to derive any pleasure from it — and she doesn’t seem to register any real feelings about the experience beyond the fact that she can now cross it off her to-do list. But she has changed. When she returns to Paris, we see her strutting through the halls of a hotel like a naughty secretary in heels, knocking on the door of Georges (Johan Leysen), a man who appears to be in his late 60s and who pays her 300 euros for sex. Isabelle’s transformation is so abrupt you almost feel like a reel of the film is missing. Isabelle (calling herself ”Lea” for her trysts) continues to meet men after school. Some treat her well, others not so well. But the question hangs in the air like a wisp of Gauloises smoke: Why is she doing this? Is it for the money? The illicit thrill?
Vacth, the freckle-faced 23-year-old Jane Birkin look-alike who plays Isabelle, isn’t the most expressive actress. But I think that’s by design. Maybe Ozon wants Isabelle to be an unknowable cipher — a stand-in for a generation that’s grown up too quickly and feels too little. In Belle de Jour, Deneuve was a bit of a blank slate too. Part of the power of both films lies in how the audience projects motivations onto these women.
Ozon has always been a director keen on homage, whether he’s tipping his chapeau to Hitchcockian thrillers or Sirkian melodramas. And Young & Beautiful, with its barrage of fairly graphic sex scenes, is a throwback to the erotically charged, envelope-pushing Euro art-house films of the ’60s and ’70s such as Blow-Up and Last Tango in Paris. This may not be Ozon’s most progressive or feminist film. But even if Isabelle’s inner motives remain enigmatic, at least Ozon is interested in posing questions about rebellion and female desire that few male directors even bother to consider. (Also available on VOD) B