Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Dangerous, sensual young love and sex

  • 01 May 2014

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