You could sum up much of the French director François Ozon’s work as being about young people discovering sex and portraying it frankly. So it is not surprising if a capsule description of an Ozon film makes it sound titillating and exploitive. Swimming Pool, his most seen work in the U.S., told the story of a lush adolescent spending the summer by a backyard pool. This sounds, and, up to a point, is, prurient. But Ozon is a master of suspense, not of danger as it approaches, but of what he is really getting at. For all the skin in the game of Swimming Pool, it turned out to be a smart little movie about the literary imagination and the social construction of attractiveness. It was, in effect, a thematic thriller.
His current work chronicles the life of a gorgeous teenager who moonlights as a call girl. The promoters of YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL make sure you know this, and Ozon is aware that it is effective as cinema to start off by giving you just enough of what you expect to draw you in. It opens with the teen described in the title being observed on the beach through a pair of binoculars; the filmgoer as voyeur; the woman as object. Then the twists start coming – but with a difference. They sometimes arise from surprising things that happen in the story, but have less to do with plot than with psychology. A motivation is revealed, or someone realizes something about herself, or about someone else, or retreats into his thoughts, or expresses herself honestly. The milieu remains what it has been but the mood changes radically. The plot point that caused the change might have been a familiar one (we have seen it before in one film or another): it is the upshot that is surprising.
YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL fits the French film tradition of sex as economic transaction, with prostitution as the essential capitalist act (start with Godard and go from there), but Ozon knows that this most intimate and biological of human activities resists a too reductive analysis. YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL doesn’t ignore economics; the call girl’s proceeds are stored in her bedroom closet; and defiantly guarded as hers; but it is clear by the end that the cash is more symbolic than functional. Marine Vacth is exquisite as Isabelle, the young woman described in the title, not only physically (Ozon’s twists do not, this time, challenge us in that respect) but for the subtlety with which she conveys both thought and action. The why of Isabelle’s motivations resists straightforward explication, to her as much as to us. Vacth gives the final scenes of YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL an astonishing psychological complexity, and the end arrives like eyes abruptly opening on a strange place at the end of sleep.
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