Fathoming the sordid depths of taboo and transgression, François Ozon’s Jeune Et Jolie finds the unfathomable in a teenager trading innocence for money.
Bright Young Things by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s a cascade of literary and cinematic references throughout Jeune Et Jolie, but perhaps the most central to François Ozon’s hymn to the shameless innocence of youth is Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Roman, featured in teenage heroine Isabelle’s French class, discussing how unserious seventeen-year-olds are. Beyond the beer and lemonade on lime-lined streets, Ozon’s Jeune Et Jolie rebels against this carefree love of champagne kisses and spurned yearning. And rather than the warm, troubled waters of confused and self-effacing romance, Ozon plunges us into its icy opposite – the lingering kiss of youth that leads to a passionless but profitable trade in sex. With all the innocence of a teenager, Jeune Et Jolie‘s beautiful heroine passes from bikinied nymph to scarlet-lipped streetwalker to soiled goods and back again, forcing us all to confront the moral power of sex.
Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is on holiday in the South of France with her mother, step-father and younger brother Victor. It’s her first summer of love as she meets German holidaymaker Felix, to whom she gifts her virginity. But back in Paris and without a second thought for her holiday lover, Isabelle turns herself into a high-class escort, meeting richer older men in hotel rooms for 300 Euros a trick. It’s only when kindly, white-haired client Georges keels over from a heart attack that she turns her back on the trade. But she’s too late to stop her parents from finding out.
Like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, there are four movements to François Ozon’s Jeune Et Jolie – innocence, crime, punishment and acceptance all shaded with a tinge of melancholy. And while these narrative concertos in the life of Isabelle may not offer any clue into the whys and the wherefores, Jeune Et Jolie is nevertheless a very enjoyable emotional journey. For like Malgorta Skuwokowa’s Elles, Isabelle is a student sex worker – only 17 and with no grand designs for the great wad of cash she has acquired from her long list of clients. It’s sex without explanation – without love, greed or need. Just good clean fun.
Only François Ozon’s Jeune Et Jolie isn’t so much a hymn to free love as an interrogation of our attitudes to sex – Isabelle’s shocking innocence as well as her parents’ and our reaction to her daytime trade. At times, thanks to Marine Vacth’s sublime and steely performance, Isabelle appears like a virgin in the full flush of youth ravaged by a succession of lecherous lovers, like a cinematic reincarnation of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare. At others, she’s cold, even incomprehensible, acting according to her own inexplicable desires – saving the money from her tricks as a trophy (who knows what for?) or meeting Georges’ widow and kindred spirit Alice (Charlotte Rampling), or listening to her old phone messages from johns, a fond reminder of a past-time of distant voices, secret trysts and stolen blouses.
Like her parents, as an audience we struggle to make sense of it, even if we don’t suffer the heartbreaking and embarrassing awkwardness of a daughter trading her innocence for money before their very eyes. While Isabelle may not yet have attached any moral significance to sex, for her progressive parents (leaving condoms on the bathroom shelf) it’s an unbearable and heartbreaking leap, which leaves them separated from her world by an irritating moral high ground. Family trust dissolves as their daughter becomes a living room coquette – a sex object and dangerous. But in the end her teenage transgression is nothing more than a side-step, innocence regained through client-funded therapy and a high-school boyfriend, and all scored by Françoise Hardy’s Première Rencontre. Like a virgin again, Isabelle nevertheless remains a world apart, floating through teenage parties in just the same way as she walked like beauty through the Parisian knights.
And yet, Isabelle is haunted by a kind of melancholy, beyond the lassitude of adolescence. And perhaps the key to Ozon’s inexplicable Four Seasons is her vision of herself on the summertime beach – split in two, schizophrenic and morally divided. With model looks and odd reactions, Isabelle is out of kilter with the world around her, an object of desire to her clients, of worry to her parents, and of reflection to Ozon and us. But there’s another ethical dimension too – represented by brother Vincent – peeping on his sister on the beach through binoculars and then casting shadows over her like a lascivious Nosferatu. He’s not just a voyeur though, and like Ozon and, by extension us, he’s involved – procuring Felix for her (for his own interest?), making excuses to their parents so she can slip away and spying on Isabelle in her bedroom. For all her youth and beauty, this is female sexuality through the lens of a disinterested observer – enigmatic and melancholy. And if Ozon’s Jeune Et Jolie is just the same, it’s haunted by a dark shadow peeking through a keyhole, wrangling with transgression and daring enough not to even attempt to explain the inexplicable.
Young And Beautiful is released on 29th November 2013 in the UK