Young & Beautiful: François Ozon’s Teenage Seductress Goes on the Prowl

Young & Beautiful

Runs Fri., May 9-Weds., May 14 at SIFF Film Center & SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not Rated. 95 minutes.

Before she began acting, Marine Vacth maintained a successful modeling career, and she has the impassive presence of a cover girl. This is not a knock; in François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, Vacth’s camera-ready and oft-naked presence, so ready to be gazed upon and consumed, is a boon to the film’s exploration of a disoriented teenager’s journey into a dark realm. She plays Isabelle, the heroine of this tale of four seasons. In the opening summer segment, 17-year-old Isabelle loses her virginity while on vacation—Ozon depicts her standing outside herself during the act, as though sizing up the possibilities for future use (she certainly isn’t enjoying the sex). By autumn, Isabelle has utilized the Internet to build a stable of clients for her sex business, charging men 300 Euros for an afternoon in a hotel room. Her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) and stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) notice nothing, except that Isabelle seems to be showering a lot.

The other seasons bring fallout from this precocious behavior, especially as regards an elegant and elderly client (Johan Leysen) who becomes Isabelle’s most favored john. This attachment, and its implied daddy issues, threaten to turn the movie into a sentimental idea. (Isabelle’s own father is occasionally referred to and conspicuous by his absence.) Yet Ozon, whose customary form is irony (Swimming Pool and last year’s In the House are among the most characteristic of his prolific output), manages to pull out of that danger zone. Much of the second half of the film takes place as family drama, with Ozon wisely shifting focus from Isabelle’s errant empowerment to others’ reactions to her misbehavior.

Vacth has the sort of beauty that places her in a long line of French actresses who practically demand the word “enigmatic” be placed before their names. She may or may not be an actress, but for this movie’s purposes, she certainly is Isabelle. Despite her performance and the film’s canny sidestepping of expected coming-of-age conventions, Young & Beautiful feels superficial, as though Ozon hadn’t fleshed out the scenario and instead relied on movie alchemy to fill in the gaps. Given the blank conception of the central character, that’s a tough trick—the magic kind—to pull off.

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