Young & Beautiful a starkly circumscribed coming-of-age story

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Directed by François Ozon. Starring Marine Vacth. In French with English subtitles. Rated 18A.

From its come-hither poster to an icy heroine who doesn’t grasp her own motivations, Young & Beautiful evokes Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, and it’s meant to. What was transgressive in 1967 can seem quaint today, of course, but there’s little kinkiness in the latest from veteran writer-director François Ozon.

There are also references to his own Swimming Pool here, but most of Ozon’s earlier features have been more hot-tempered, or even parodistic (like 8 Women) than this, which takes a rigorously detached view of one young woman’s starkly circumscribed coming-of-age.

The film’s interest in voyeuristic distance is established at the start, with a binocular-framed view of 16-year-old Isabelle (former model Marine Vacth, actually 23) sunbathing topless during a family vacation in the sweltering south of France. The viewer is actually little brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), who takes a more-than-curious approach to her budding sexuality. Isabelle’s pretty mother (Géraldine Pailhas) appears to resent her daughter’s incipient beauty—or maybe just regrets the kid’s turn towards sneering diffidence.

Isabelle pays no attention to her stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) and doesn’t even seem that interested in the German tourist (Lucas Prisor) to whom she rather callously gives her virginity on her 17th birthday. With that out of the way, Isabelle returns to Paris, where she begins to meet older men in hotels and have them pay her for sex. Thanks, Internet! 

Aside from Victor, the only male for whom she shows any affection, or even interest, is an elderly businessman (Johan Leysen) who becomes her steadiest customer. When she finally gets caught, though, our Isabelle de Jour has no apologies or explanations; she hasn’t even spent any of the money. The film turns out to be more of a disquisition on how sexuality is commodified in modern life than it is a psychological study.

In the end, though, Ozon’s admirable restraint proves somewhat mystifying. After a couple of trick endings, he adds a coda intended to get beneath the skin of a character whose feelings mostly remain opaque. As with last year’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, the most shocking thing for North Americans isn’t the nudity or sex, but the notion that high-school students can discuss Rimbaud’s poetry in depth, and aren’t embarrassed to do so.

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