Young and Beautiful's 'nightmarish' sexploration fails to arouse

François Ozon's good girl gone bad tale is typical French existentialism

Thursday May 22, 2014 04:00 am EDT

Maybe the word "enigmatic" should be added to the title of the new French film Young and Beautiful. The new name would more accurately describe the movie and its main character, and besides, the addition couldn't make it any worse.

Young and Beautiful (Jeune et Jolie) tells the story of stunningly gorgeous and incisively intelligent 17-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who lives a gilded life with her upper-middle-class Parisian family, but doubles as a prostitute. Its central enigmatic question is "Why?" She doesn't need the money. She's not suffering from some psychological or social pathology. She's not being forced into it, and she isn't saving up to buy something special. It's an oh-so-French existential thing, ultimately as dark and motiveless as the killing in Albert Camus' The Stranger. In other words, the question of "Why?" is answered with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders and an ill-natured, misanthropic "Well, why not?"

Vacth is a drop-dead gorgeous star and the camera loves her, lots of her, in nearly every frame. Young and Beautiful does manage to generate some interesting heat between its voyeuristic ooh-la-la shots and its dark, creepy existential nastiness. Ultimately, viewers will find the film and Isabelle's opaqueness more exasperating and inert (even silly) than intriguing.

The soundtrack includes wonderful songs by '60s French pop star Françoise Hardy, but they're terribly misused. For instance, a melancholy song is played over a montage of Isabelle with her Johns to an unintentionally comic effect. Similarly, a scene in which an unfortunate incident befalls one of Isabelle's older customers had me in stitches, but I'm pretty sure in hindsight it wasn't supposed to read as grim comedy.

Some are comparing this new film by director François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women) to the 1967 Luis Buñuel classic Belle du Jour in which Catherine Deneuve plays a beautiful upper-middle class housewife who, presumably bored by her bourgeois lifestyle, begins a second life as a prostitute for similarly elusive reasons. It's true one might think of Young and Beautiful as a sort of baby Belle; they're similar in subject and tone. But the comparison actually doesn't do a service to the newer film. Even the wonderful Charlotte Rampling is in the film, but she arrives far too late to save things. There's no compelling reason for anyone, given a choice between the two, to watch Young and Beautiful over the vastly superior Belle du Jour.

It's hard to say who the best audience for Young and Beautiful might be. Maybe it's a horror film for wealthy, progressive parents; a nightmarish Exorcist-like tale of possession in which a beautiful girl precociously masters not just the mechanics of sex, but its brutal economics. If the thought of that doesn't arouse, intrigue, or frighten you, then neither will Young and Beautiful.

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