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Hypnotic Young & Beautiful Penetrates Mysteries of Human Sexuality and Identity

garysoloBy Gary Kramer

Young & Beautiful, the latest film from prolific gay writer/director François Ozon, is an exquisitely made drama that chronicles a year in the life of seventeen-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth). After she loses her virginity at the beach in the summer, Isabelle returns to Paris and secretly works as a prostitute after school. When one of her clients dies, Isabelle’s activities are brought to the attention of her mother Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas), who is shocked and saddened by her daughter’s behavior.

Ozon met with me for the Bay Times to talk about Young & Beautiful. The filmmaker explained that what was important for him was to show “the mystery of who was behind the girl—her motivations. I wanted to film without easy explanations—to be a voyeur.”

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His detached approach has Isabelle being spied on through binoculars while sunbathing on the beach in the opening scene, and often through car windows and hotel room mirrors. The scene where Isabelle is deflowered includes a moment where the teenager literally steps outside the situation and “watches herself.”

Ozon indicated that his mise en scène was “to discover who she is.” He explained, “She is changing. She has new desires. She is no longer a child, but not yet an adult. It’s a transformation. She has a different costume for each character. Adolescence is finding a place, and taking freedom from your parents. It’s having a double life. I think adolescents need to separate from family—hide a part of their life—to find intimacy.”

The story of a teenage girl keeping her sexual activities a secret from her parents certainly parallels gay youth hiding their same-sex desires. Ozon admitted that he initially conceived the film as a teenage boy discovering his sexuality. He explained, “But if he were a prostitute, we would have gay themes, and I felt that was too heavy. I wanted to make something light, sweet, and girly.” He added, “My last film, In the House, was about a boy, and I wanted a change. It is no problem for me to identify with a female character. For me, it’s clearer. It was not a direct reflection of me.”

Ozon candidly revealed a bit about what he discovered about himself at seventeen. He acknowledged, “I knew I had the power to seduce. I used that, but not in the same way as Isabelle—I didn’t become a prostitute—but adults were looking at me differently. I felt the sexuality of adult women and men. It was real power. They were older, and because I was young and beautiful, I could use that.”

The director, who is an older brother to two sisters, often explores family dynamics in his films. In Young & Beautiful he treats the family with tenderness. He said, “I wanted to understand each point of view, from the complaining mother to the macho stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot). There is a violence for parents; the mother feels guilty. She educates and loves her daughter, and she feels Isabelle’s actions are because of her.”

Ozon further observed that parents regularly have to deal with facts that might make them uncomfortable, such as their son being gay, or their daughter having sex with a family friend. The way Sylvia handles the discovery of her daughter choosing to be a sex worker is what makes the film so compelling in its second act.

The director researched the character of Isabelle by meeting with many psychoanalysts and policemen who worked with teen prostitutes. Young & Beautiful makes it clear that Isabelle’s prostitution is a form of control; she is not doing it for the money. This makes it a feminist film in Ozon’s eyes. “There is a disconnect between her sexuality and her feeling, especially when she confronts death,” he said.

Moreover, the filmmaker does not see Isabelle’s losing her virginity as a key to her behavior. “Isabelle just wants to turn the page. I don’t think it was an important moment. It’s really amazing; I don’t know anyone for whom losing their virginity is such a great moment. It’s a disaster. You choose someone and you have to do it. There’s too much pressure.”

Ozon worked closely with Vacth, who was 21 when Young & Beautiful was shot. The young actress gives an incredibly assured performance, and her body language is particularly terrific. He explained about their collaboration, “I’m honest with actors. I do not manipulate them. I tell them everything what I want (and) what I don’t. I explain what to do before the sex and nude scenes.” He even counseled his leading lady by telling her that, “This is a film that will follow you all your life. People will confuse the character and the actress.”

Ozon created a trust with Vacth, and likened Isabelle to Catherine Deneuve’s prostitute in Belle de Jour or Charlotte Rampling’s role in The Night Porter. Rampling has an important cameo in Young & Beautiful. Ozon admitted that he deliberately gave her the role because, “Isabelle is mysterious, and [Vacth] is the same kind of actress as Rampling. I wanted to create a transmission from the old woman to the young girl. A mature actress and a new actress at the beginning of her career, so what you feel is a passing of the baton.”

The film is hypnotic throughout, culminating in this critical scene between the two actresses. Young & Beautiful confirms Ozon’s mastery at penetrating the mysteries of human sexuality and identity.

© 2014 Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.