The acclaimed French director François Ozon’s new movie “Young & Beautiful” (Jeune & Jolie) takes the reality of teen life as its subject, shattering the illusion of undisturbed innocence and love.
The story revolves around a 17-year-old girl, Isabelle Bontale (Marine Vacth), whose indifference toward the loss of her virginity triggers her to become a prostitute. Throughout the film, Ozon explores the relationships Isabelle has with her mother Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas), her stepfather Patrick (Frédéric Pierrot), her brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), and her clients. In these unfulfilling interactions, Isabelle constantly tests the extreme and pushes her own boundaries in order to feel something.
“I feel that the adolescence is the worst experience of my life, so I want to show that in the film, to show the complexity of that despair,” Ozon said in a roundtable interview. “You have to fight for a new body against what the world wants ... to find your places, to express yourselves.”
The film is divided into four parts, each showing a different season and a different episode of Isabelle’s life.
“My idea is to work on the idea of time,” Ozon said. “To show that at this age, time is so slow. To show that in one year, many things can happen. And today, time to me is very fast. So I wanted to play with this idea of time because I wanted to show four different moments.”
Rising talent Marine Vacth is disheveled, distant, and bare as Isabelle, confronting the intruding gaze of the audience. She’s unclothed in many of the scenes, but she remains veiled in mystery.
“I was quite confident because when I first met her, I thought she was amazing. She was exactly what I was looking for,” Ozon said. “She was very mysterious and she is a quality star, but she didn’t know it. And what I like was the fact that she was there and she wasn’t there. She has this complexity.”
The intricacy of Isabelle as a character lies in the duality between her inner and outer selves, as well as between being a prostitute and a teenager. “I decided during the first sex scene to show this duality of the character,” Ozon said. “I think we all have this experience. Sex—being there and watching yourself. So I thought it was important to show that from the start, to explain the double life of Isabelle and the mise-en-scène of this duality.”
The movie also touches on family relations and how parents and children, divided by their misunderstanding, can never achieve true empathy.
“I think when you are a teenager, you want to escape what your parents want you to become, and very often there is a fight,” Ozon said.
“Suddenly, the girl is a stranger to the mom. The mom is also a stranger to herself,” Pailhas, who plays Isabelle’s mother, said. “She acts in a way that she never thinks that she could act. She doesn’t recognize herself hitting her girl because she pretends that everything is sweet and happy.”
In Isabelle’s encounter with a former client’s wife (Charlotte Rampling), the woman gently touches Isabelle’s hair until the girl sinks into sleep. Purposefully adrift, the final scene is shot with dream-like quality. Awake, Isabelle finally breathes, inhaling the luxurious air with relief. Ozon’s project seems to show that only true empathy can ease our frustration over growing up.