Dangerous, sensual young love and sex

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Young & Beautiful (R). Director: François Ozon. Starring: Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Fantin Ravat, Johan Leysen. 95 minutes

'When you are seventeen you aren't really serious.' Arthur Rimbaud's poem 'Romance' is the thematic centrepiece of Ozon's thoughtful and unsettling consideration of adolescent, female sexuality. It is recited and dissected by members of a high school literature class, who remark on its nostalgia for dangerous, sensual young love and sex. 'June night! Seventeen! ... The sap is champagne and goes straight to your head ... You are wandering; you feel a kiss on your lips/ Which quivers there like something small and alive ...'

Something not unlike this has occurred to the film's troubled protagonist, Isabelle (Vacth), during a recent family holiday at a luxurious beachside villa, the events of which are explored during the first of the film's four distinct acts. It is the summer of her 17th birthday, and she manufactures the circumstances of her first sexual encounter, with a young German tourist on the stony shore. It is a visibly unpleasant experience, but marked by self-awareness; during the encounter, Isabelle has a vision of herself, standing nearby, watching, inquisitive.

The film takes an abrupt, disquieting turn. Isabelle is back at home, back at school and, although only months may have passed at most, self-employed as a prostitute. This portion of the film, subtitled 'Autumn', contains myriad encounters between Isabelle and her clients. In the worst and most humiliating of these, she is belittled and explicitly objectified by a man who achieves self-gratification without touching her. But she achieves something like tenderness with a much older man, Georges (Leysen), during their repeated encounters.

This portion of the film is shocking, not least because we are offered little context and no reason explanation. Money is not a motive; Isabelle comes from a wealthy family, and her mother Sylvie (Pailhas) and stepfather Patrick (Pierrot) ensure she wants for nothing. Later in the film, after an alarming turn of events reveals the truth about Isabelle's activities, a psychologist suggests the behaviour may stem from unhealed trauma related to her absent father (all of her clients are older men); Isabelle dismisses this, though she does not deny it.

Objectification is the key to unlocking Ozon's ambiguities. The title reduces Isabelle to physical characteristics, as do her clients. But more than this, the experience of objectification is shown to be universal in Isabelle's world. In the very first frame we are offered a point-of-view perspective of Isabelle sunbathing topless on a secluded beach; the watcher is revealed to be her brother, Victor (Ravat) (whose own sexual awakening, as an observer of his sister's sexuality, provides a further, troubling layer to Ozon's thoughtful but perplexing film).

By making men pay her, Isabelle exerts control over the manner and circumstances of her objectification. These are drastic and tragic measures that condemn the everyday exploitation of women by men, from pop culture to pornography. The third and fourth acts of Young & Beautiful, 'Winter' and 'Spring', unfold the fallout and aftermath of the discovery of Isabelle's secret by her parents. The drama is superbly acted, particularly by Vacth, who quietly embodies all the passion, insecurity and fading idealism of late adolescent self-discovery.


 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, François Ozon, Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot.

 

 

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Existing comments

And if all womankind banded together and took the male path, the world would turn into one huge brothel.
Wendy | 30 April 2014


The culture of France has always given the French an appetite for art? A culture and a time immensely rich in treasures as it is in trash.
Annoying Orange | 01 May 2014


This kind of observation is better made by a woman, not Tim.
joshua | 01 May 2014


I can't agree with Joshua. Until men become aware of and acknowledge their part in the objectification, we cannot hope for change. Thank you Tim
margaret McDonald | 08 January 2015


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