As a filmmaker, Francois Ozon mixes French nihilism and gut-level cinema, and he never lets the nihilism get in the way of a good time. His latest is the story of a middle-class, 17-year-old girl who loses her virginity over the summer and for some inexplicable reason transforms herself, by the fall, into a call girl – though she doesn’t tell her mother and continues to go to high school.
Young & Beautiful, like its title, is obvious and irresistible. Taken as a whole, the movie is far-fetched and even faintly ridiculous and, yet, in the moment to moment, it’s compelling and truthful. In a way, the girl is just a cipher and so it’s pointless to contemplate her actions or look for reasons. But those actions are interesting and dramatic, and the ripples around her feel completely real.
A switch seems to go off in the head of young Isabelle (Marine Vacth) while on vacation. After experiencing sex for the first time, she is thrown into an internal upheaval by her own sense of dependency, from which she eventually reacts in the most extreme way available to her. She adopts prostitution as a means of short-circuiting need and emotion, while making money and asserting her own power. At least that seems to be her thinking. She doesn’t say.
Like a lot of French filmmakers, Ozon eschews explanation and prefers to keep things in the realm of mystery. But, unlike bad French filmmakers, he doesn’t take that philosophical stance as an excuse to do nothing at all. Instead, his story has a free-form feeling about it, with frequent surprises that seem as if they’re surprising to Ozon, too, as if he set out not knowing where things were heading but was absolutely determined to keep himself awake.
The adult characters are as vivid as Isabelle is opaque. Ozon, with his usual inspired casting, places Geraldine Pailhas in the role of the mother. Best known to American audiences as the girl on the beach in 1994’s Don Juan DeMarco, Pailhas is a terrific actress with a spiritual look and an earthy impatience. Here, she and Ozon hint that, even though the mother is the film’s most sympathetic figure, she might also be the source of her daughter’s problems. There is just something slightly skewed, slightly uncontrolled, beneath Pailhas’s reasonable exterior.
As the stepfather, Frederic Pierrot (from TV’s The Returned) has the semicomic role of a guy who can’t step into a hallway without getting caught naked or open a door without stumbling upon someone having sex or masturbating. He’s blundering around in a house of secrets.
Charlotte Rampling, who got her second career in France after appearing in the Ozon films Under the Sand and The Swimming Pool, shows up, elegant and formidable, in a single but pivotal scene.
Cast: Marine Vacth, Geraldine Pailhas, Frederic Pierrot, Charlotte Rampling.
Writer-director: Francois Ozon.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday May 23 in Miami-Dade at Tower, Miami Beach Cinematheque and Cosford.