Why the hell is she doing this? — That’s the question you’ll likely be asking yourself throughout Young and Beautiful, a film focused on the sexual adventures of a devastatingly beautiful girl. Her name is Isabelle, and she’s played by Marine Vacth, who has the look of a young, Gallic Julia Roberts. At first glance, it’s hard to tell if she’s 16 or 23. We’re introduced to her through the lens of binoculars — like voyeurs — as she sunbathes topless on the beach. If this wasn’t uncomfortable enough, it only becomes more so when we learn that the fictional Isabelle is, indeed, only 16.
What follows this unnerving start is a story of discovery in four parts. Each one is given a season, and it starts in summer. Call it a summer of love: Isabelle crushes hard for a German hunk in a sea-side city, and she’s bent on losing her virginity. She shares her plans for doing so with her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), and you get the idea that perhaps the movie is about Victor learning how to date by watching his older sister mature sexually. Hopes for this are soon dashed, however, as Isabelle’s big night is a massive disappointment, and whatever feelings she might have had for her German evaporate.
The following seasons for Isabelle aren’t nearly as sunny, but there’s a lot more sex. As autumn suddenly falls, we find her transformed — out of the bathing suit and into the business suit. Again, we’re unsure if she’s a child or an adult. Writer/director François Ozon, throughout the film, continues to force the question: How should we treat teenagers? Do we acknowledge their sexuality, or treat them as children? What are the limits? Ozon goes straight for the extremes. Just months after losing her virginity the day before her 17th birthday, Isabelle starts prostituting herself over the Internet. Her main clientele are gentlemen old enough to be her grandfather.
Yet not much is ever learned of Isabelle. Ozon never gives us any single reason why she’s selling herself. Perhaps it’s just for the experience, but that seems too easy. In a way, watching her have sex — scene after scene, john after john — is like watching softcore porn: there’s lots of nudity and hotel sheets, but we have no emotional or dramatic connection to the people in the act. Despite the immaculate cinematography, one still gets the feeling that he’s a voyeur, looking at a girl as though she’s an object of desire. Salvation from this eroticism comes with a great plot twist. (If there’s one thing Ozon does well, it’s craft a story.) Isabelle’s secret is exposed, and everyone around her is asking the same question we’ve been asking: Why is she doing this? But Ozon, yet again, gives no space for Isabelle to answer. In fact, things blur even more.
Spring eventually comes with the possibility of young love, and Ozon puts a little bow on the film by poetically closing out a relationship Isabelle had with one kindly john. But the story doesn’t satisfy. Despite Isabelle being in almost every scene, we never know her. We feel just like her mom and step-dad: the people so close to her who have yet to know who she is or what she wants, who are concerned and puzzled by her actions. We crave answers, and she gives us none, even though we’re allowed to witness her secret life. After a while, one starts to wonder if Isabelle is just the sexual fantasy of an older man, or a device through which Ozon can delve into teenage sexuality and undermine conventions. Perhaps she’s both. Either way, how one sees this ultra-sexualized 17-year-old will seriously sway one’s view of Young and Beautiful.
Young and Beautiful is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.