Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review: "Young and Beautiful"

Director: Francois Ozon
Runtime: 93 minutes

It seems strange to think that a story involving prostitution could double as a coming-of-age tale and/or character study. Yet the mix has been fertile ground for the likes of Chabrol's Violette, Bunuel's Belle du Jour, and most recently, Von Trier's Nymphomaniac. Joining the pack of this peculiar sub-genre now (frankly, I'm surprised it took so long) is French director Francois Ozon. The prolific auteur last hit American shores this time last year with the excellent In the House, and he'll likely have another project landing here somewhere in 2015. Suffice to say, the man moves quickly. Ozon's current gift may not deserve the superlatives thrown at In the House, but Young and Beautiful, a simple, efficient story of a self-managing teen prostitute, certainly has its merits. 

When we first meet Isabelle (lovely newcomer Marine Vacth), we see her through the lenses of her kid brother's binoculars. Unaware that she's being spied on, Isabelle removes her bikini top for a lazy afternoon of sunbathing in beach in southern France. Despite this blatantly objectifying opening, Ozon is quick to undermine the notion that Isabelle is nothing more than empty Gallic sex appeal. Once Isabelle returns home from her summer vacation (during which she both turns 17 and loses her virginity), she immediately decides to set herself up as a sex worker. 

Ozon has always avoided the laborious route when it comes to revealing motivation, but his approach here leaves one to wonder if there will be any point in the subsequent scenes. His filmmaking is as smooth as ever, and he never allows a scene to outstay its welcome. Yet the cost of such economical writing is that it puts more focus on the specifics of the scenes and characters. 

Despite its undeniable aesthetic competence, what keeps Young and Beautiful from joining the ranks of Ozon's finest is how surprisingly mundane everything feels. The script and direction avoid shock value or graphic detail (unlike, say, Nymphomaniac), but they also refuse to fully develop the ideas trapped just under the surface. Isabelle leads a double life filled with falsehoods, yet she can't stand the theater, which is built upon all sorts of artifice, from actors to sets. Though the film does feature a scene with Isabelle running into a client at a theater, the moment remains detached from its underlying irony. 

More satisfying is an encounter with a client who insists on oral sex, and then drives Isabelle home while blasting opera music. This juxtaposition of the carnal and the sophisticated, enhanced by the sleek editing, is the sort of thing that Young and Beautiful cries out for more of. On the flip side, Ozon's cheeky sense of humor is also largely absent. The film never strains for a dark or uncomfortable laugh, but these moments are rare and they evaporate almost before they're delivered. 

However, Young and Beautiful is not without its various successes. Ozon's pacing is commendable, as always, yet the real draw here is first-time performer Vacth. A model-turned-actress, the 23 year old handles the role with aplomb under Ozon's guidance. The film also works best when it captures Isabelle's adjustment to her secret profession, and the fallout that accompanies one unexpected meeting. This isn't a case of an untrained performer giving a "good enough" performance; it's an assured, effortless debut that hints at (hopefully) greater things to come as/if she pursues the craft further. Geraldine Pailhas delivers strong work as Isabelle's initially oblivious mother, and her confrontational scenes with Vacth are easily the best acted. 

Were it not for Vacth's peculiar, quiet radiance, best in show honors would go to a crucial cameo from Ozon regular Charlotte Rampling. Though her role is best unspoiled, the character is responsible for helping Young and Beautiful, and Isabelle's journey, avoid coming off as completely without growth or maturation. As always, Rampling takes mere minutes of screen time and injects years of feeling into them, to the point where she starts to offset the film's undercooked subtext. In its final scenes, Young and Beautiful starts to push past its routine narrative path and tap into the rich psychology bubbling underneath. Ozon has tackled complex emotions with shocking efficiency before (ex: his 2001 masterpiece Under the Sand), which is why his latest is a hint underwhelming despite its overall success. The efficiency and smooth storytelling remain, but unlike past efforts, Ozon has opted to leave the more enlightening aspects a bit too far off shore. They remain visible, but like Isabelle's brother in the opening scene, you'll need a pair of binoculars to really get a good look. 

Grade: B/B-

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