François Ozon’s “Jeune & Jolie” (“Young & Beautiful”) is a mystery — not in the sense of whodunit, but why.
We first meet Isabelle (model Marine Vacth) on summer holiday with her family. She’s at that age — on the cusp of turning 17 — where she wants some independence from her all-too-understanding mother Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas) and stepfather Patrick (Frédéric Pierrot). She confides her secrets only to her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat).
“Jeune & Jolie” is a coming-of-age story, set over four seasons and scored with some plaintive Françoise Hardy songs. It looks like your typical French romance, but it packs a sting in its tail. Isabelle is attracted to a German boy, Felix (Lucas Prisor), and is determined to lose her virginity with him, but after a rather unspectacular first time on the beach, she pulls back — perhaps just as repelled by how much her parents seem to like him — and by the end of their vacation, she leaves without even saying goodbye.
Cut. We are now in the autumn, and Isabelle is striding through a hotel lobby. She takes the elevator up to room #6025, and there she meets her first trick, Georges (Johan Leysen), who is old enough to be her grandfather. As fall moves into winter, we follow Isabelle’s various liaisons with the men she meets though an online escort service, while still living at home and attending a prestigious high school. It’s here that the “why” question hits you like a brick.
Ozon keeps Isabelle’s motivations cloudy, aided by a subtle performance by Vacth, and this is precisely what makes the movie intriguing. They show us a character who isn’t sure what she’s looking for, and who learns only what she is not. What drives her? Curiosity, or the desire to flirt with danger, or — more likely — an urge to strike out at her mother? All seem plausible, but this is where the viewer does the work; Ozon is not interested in making a social critique.
This has rather predictably infuriated lefty critics. The PC view is that women don’t enter into prostitution except via force or economic necessity, neither of which is true in Isabelle’s case. While this is often true, it just doesn’t square well with reality. What of enjo ko¯sai (compensated dating)? Or the office worker who moonlights after hours at an S&M club? Or the university-educated professional who works evenings at dodgy strip clubs? I have known some of these people; they exist. Yet Ozon is being attacked for presenting a “fantasy,” despite having researched his topic with police and psychiatrists who will attest that such cases are not uncommon. But such is ideology — it denies the vagaries of human nature in favor of a view to which all must conform.
Interestingly, the same people loved Ozon when he was making sexually transgressive gay cinema such as “Sitcom” or the similarly June-December romance of “Water Drops on Burning Rocks”; they are clearly less fond of his tendency to épater la bourgeoisie when it’s their own bourgeois liberal piety being tweaked. Further fanning the flames, he told one of many interviewers who questioned the motivations of a character like Isabelle by saying -with a mischievous grin, I’m sure — “Sometimes it’s good to be the object of desire of someone else. Why not? It’s a game. Sex is between two people, and sometimes it’s not you who has the power. It’s good not to be in control; you should try it.”