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A Seasoned Paramour

Jeune & jolie/Young & Beautiful (2013)

57th BFI London Film Festival

Prolific, dependable and remarkably consistent, François Ozon has built up an impressive body of work since his arrival onto the cinematic scene more than 20 years ago. His latest film certainly suffers in comparison to its predecessor, “In the House,” now seen as one of Mr. Ozon’s strongest and most successful works. But while “Jeune & jolie/Young & Beautiful” may be modest and even frustrating, it would probably be seen as a highly creditable drama from most other talents.

The film charts a year in the life of teenager Isabelle (Marine Vacth), divided into four seasonal chapters. The opening summer section, in which Isabelle’s sexuality awakens during a blissful summer holiday, is so gently and romantically evoked it could have come straight out of a vintage, sun-kissed Eric Rohmer setting. But when the moment of Isabelle’s fateful loss of innocence arrives, the serene bubble is burst for the audience too: Isabelle’s eyes betraying a profound disgust at the sexual act that runs far deeper than mere discomfort or regret.

As such it’s not too unexpected when autumn brings a darker turn, but Mr. Ozon thrusts us with unexpected immediacy into the reality of Isabelle’s newfound life as a high-class call girl. If such a jump seems initially jarring, it’s testament to the excellence of Mr. Vacth’s performance that the transformation is plausible: She conveys so much in the virginity scene that her journey from revulsion to substituted requital is dramatically sound.

However, Ms. Vacth’s is a blank and expressionless performance, and we spend the rest of the movie wondering exactly what her longer-term motives are. She evidently enjoys the power her profession brings her over the opposite sex, but it’s still a highly risky game to play considering she lives with her parents, a corollary of which is that she’s unable to spend her earnings without drawing attention. We guess that her detachment from sexual pleasure imbues her with a misguided sense of maturity, a furtive elevation above the jejune experimentation of her peers; but because she can’t confide in anyone, we too are denied her justifications.

Somehow she builds a rapport with one of johns that develops into a mild attachment, but the relationship ends with a disaster that leads to both a jolting realization of the seriousness of her actions, and the interest of the police, with resulting consequences for the continuation of her double life.

A memorable scene occurs after this juncture when Isabelle is forced to attend counseling sessions. The therapist’s attempt to delve into her family history for a hint of her motivations is a highly intriguing inquest for both character and audience. We want the scene to develop further and hear more, but Mr. Ozon refuses to provide any definitive answers for her behavior.

However, the director has already made clear in the film so far — and in his previous work — that he sees family life as a malign influence. He repeatedly details the hypocrisies of Isabelle’s parents and other adult characters, generally insinuating that the complexity of family relationships somehow contributes to inculcating behavior like Isabelle’s.

Frequent Ozon watchers will also recognize another of his favorite targets: heterosexuality. As in films like “5x2,” Mr. Ozon has a reputation for depicting straight relationships as stultifying, mechanical products of biological necessity. Viewers who go into the film knowing Mr. Ozon’s status as a gay filmmaker and his form in this regard will be forgiven for spending the entire film expecting Isabelle to come out at some point, realizing that her actions are a manifestation of repressed homosexuality. There’s a cheeky scene at the end of the film, featuring Charlotte Rampling in a cameo, in which Mr. Ozon toys with such expectations and purposefully pulls back from making such a revelation. Thank goodness.

Because Isabelle is so sphingine we’re always on the lookout for Mr. Ozon’s underlying message, whether it’s that our parents fuck us up or that Isabelle’s actions are symptom of deadened, passionless heterosexuality, or whether he’s simply portraying female sexuality as an unknowable enigma. But while we may have our suspicions, it’s clear Mr. Ozon wants to keep us in the dark. He surely knows that all of the above messages are as adolescent in their outlook as Isabelle herself, if not downright juvenile themes for a director in his 50s to be inferring. My guess is that Mr. Ozon is playing the mischief-maker here — as the scene with Ms. Rampling suggests — depositing decoys to suggest an authorial viewpoint and easy answers where in fact there are none proffered.

On the surface at least the film is refreshing straight-faced, with none of Mr. Ozon’s usual trademark winks and nods. I found Ozon’s vacillation between playful, sardonic mode and his more earnest incarnation harmed the uneven “In the House,” so was relieved to see him approaching this material soberly. But Mr. Ozon’s fanbase may beg to differ and will probably find something po-faced about the film’s perceived sincerity. General audiences, meanwhile, will surely on the whole be frustrated by the absence of a clear message to take away. While it’s onscreen, at least, it’s hard to deny that Mr. Ozon delivers an effective, well-acted and involving drama; it’s only upon reflection that our doubts emerge. If, with this ostensibly genuine film, Mr. Ozon really is continuing to play his old tricks, but in the much more surreptitious manner detailed above, then his gamesmanship might be too abstruse for his own good.


Opens on Nov. 29 in Britain and on April 25, 2014 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by François Ozon; director of photography, Pascal Marti; edited by Laure Gardette; music by Philippe Rombi; production design by Katia Wyszkop; costumes by Pascaline Chavanne; produced by Eric and Nicolas Alt Mayer; released by Lionsgate (Britain) and Sundance Selects (United States). In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. This film is rated 18 by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Marine Vacth (Isabelle), Géraldine Pailhas (Sylvie), Frédéric Pierrot (Patrick), Fantin Ravat (Victor), Johan Leysen (Georges), Charlotte Rampling (Alice), Nathalie Richard (Véronique), Djedje Apali (Peter), Lucas Prisor (Félix) and Laurent Delbecque (Alex).


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