Young & Beautiful

François Ozon's tender, slyly funny and splendidly shot Jeune et jolie (Young and Pretty), a portrait of an adolescent prostitute that is easily the director's best work since Swimming Pool (2003).

Revolving around Isabelle, a ravishing 17-year-old Parisian (played by Marine Vacth) who leads a double life as high-schooler and high-class call girl, the film observes the young woman's sexual awakening, the time she spends with clients, and the consequences of her actions with a fine-tuned sense of irony, real depth of feeling, and not a shred of judgement.

Wisely, Ozon never provides any explicit psychological explanation for how or why Isabelle, who comes from a well-off family presided over by a loving mother, slips into prostitution. One of the movie's most unsettling and provocative ideas is, in fact, that such a transgression could actually be easy for a young woman who is so consistently an object of desire. Ozon introduces Isabelle through the prism of the male gaze, and he often frames her face against dark or deep-toned backgrounds to highlight her singular beauty.

Indeed, the filmmaker suggests that Isabelle's physical appearance and her awareness of its effect on people make her intolerant of ordinary adolescent life; when we see her visibly bored and estranged from her classmates, we sense her impulse to experience something beyond the average, daily routine. Ozon uses a "double" motif to develop the notion that for Isabelle, sex and prostitution offer a form of escapism from, or transcendence of, banality. As she loses her virginity to a handsome German on holiday, Isabelle turns her head only to see a fully clothed version of herself watching from afar, and during several of her encounters with clients, mirrors show her reflection. Isabelle, perhaps, is using her sexuality to get outside of her everyday skin, to become another version of herself.

Vacth turns in an exquisitely modulated, expressive performance that embodies the film's compassionate vision of a young woman navigating treacherous waters.

If it looks at first like a clinical, quintessentially French study of sexuality and desire, Jeune et jolie ventures into gratifyingly risky territory when it ponders the impact of Isabelle's choices on those around her. It is to the director's great credit that the film never turns moralistic, its mysteries deepening as it heads toward its haunting conclusion.


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