Isabelle is determined to lose her virginity over the Summer. She lives a fairly "want-free" life with her family, but her ever-growing sexual desires and her impulse toward experience in that realm is what drives her in the first half of the story. Once that pesky "v-card" is out of the way, she then moves towards a more profitable venture, setting up her own website and becoming an escort for older (in some cases, much older) men to take their various kinks and fetishes out on her.
By the second half of Young and Beautiful, a life-altering event has occurred that will call into question the actions Isabelle (called Lea by her "Johns") takes to satiate her needs and well-springs a source of embarrassment and internal evaluation for the character. To say much more would give up the game here, but Francois Ozon has pulled together an intricate and explicit look at just how our humanity gets lost in the need to carry water for our urges.
The film is split in four according to the seasons, with each period punctuating the continued loss of Isabell's innocence. Ozon makes the choice to never actually judge her actions, instead acting as an impartial observer, and his treatment of the character is very even-handed. Early in the film, he underlines his own actions by having Isabelle herself somewhat "leave her own body" to view her loss of virginity on the beach, the two versions of herself locking eyes. Is one regretting what she's losing? Or, from the other side, is it more akin to clinical viewing and preparation for her eventual career path?
Throughout its running time Young and Beautiful is free-form, and eschews anything approaching real explanations for character motivation. Does Isabelle take this career path to simply earn money or is it a way to assert her own independence? At what point are her appetites sated and when is it just a job? Ozon allows the viewers to try and piece it all together themselves, but the connective tissue between it all makes for fairly stirring and imminently watchable cinema.
An existential character piece of this nature wouldn't work if its lead performers weren't up to the task, but in Marine Vacth, Ozon has a waif-ish muse that looks impossibly young, but carries herself like someone who has lived a few lifetimes while also appearing incredibly naive. It's a heck of a hat-trick to pull but Vacth nails every note pitch-perfectly, allowing Isabelle to wear a veil of confidence that only ever seems to drop when she's around her brother. Geraldine Pailhas, as Isabelle's beleaguered mother, is also stunning throughout; playing not only a beleaguered parent that's overwhelmed by the secret life that her daughter was leading but also serving as a potential source of her daughter's problems, and certainly her frustrations, with a few secrets of her own.
If there's one or two missteps that Ozon takes, its that he may leave a little too much on the table for us to connect the dots on, particularly as it relates to her father, a completely absent character whose only presence is through the financial support he sends. There's also the lingering company of the oddly not quite incestual, but awfully close, younger brother and his own sexual curiosity that is left unexplored, not to mention the most inappropriate step-father imaginable.
Ozon also hits a couple of sour notes with some music choices that slow down the action, literally, and occur to highlight the continued growth of Isabelle as a woman, with lyrics that aim right for the nose. But, the final scenes of the film, that include a very nice cameo by Charlotte Rampling, allow for enough satisfying ambiguity that it leads Young and Beautiful out on a high note. I give it a B+.
For those in the Atlanta area, Young and Beautiful opens for one week only at Midtown Art Cinema on May 23rd.