Continuing on the subject of recent movies that confront the sexual exploitation of young women, one thing I admire about Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful (which just played for a few weekends at the Music Box) is how the film avoids moralizing on the subject without coming off as crass or sensationalistic. Yes, the movie is about a 17-year-old who entertains a secret life as a high-price call girl, and yes, it contains graphic nudity. Yet I don’t find Ozon’s impassive visuals arousing. Young & Beautiful addresses the present crisis of young women coming to view themselves as sexual objects, yet it does so obliquely, advancing its argument through imagery and narrative structure. (Spoilers follow.)
In his positive Newcity review, Ray Pride cites Ozon as saying, “The theme of prostitution provides a way to . . . illustrate the questions of identity and sexuality raised by adolescence. Sexuality not yet connected to emotion.” The film’s most astonishing turn comes not when the bourgeois, not-malcontented Isabelle decides to prostitute herself. (Anyone who’s seen Buñuel’s classic Belle de Jour should be familiar with that premise.) Rather, it comes near the end, when Isabelle, having been found out and forced to give up her career, resumes her life as an ordinary adolescent without any great difficulty. This isn’t a challenge for her, Ozon seems to be saying, because Isabelle’s work as a prostitute never disrupted her everyday life—it was something separate, as though embarked upon by someone else.
The development reminded me of the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Wakefield,” in which a middle-class man walks out on his wife for no apparent reason, then returns without explanation after avoiding her for decades. (Jonathan Rosenbaum invoked the tale in his Reader review of another elusive French drama, Laurent Cantet’s Time Out.) Hawthorne often dealt in characters who are enigmas even to themselves, a way of exploring psychological complexity while honoring the mystery of existence. Ozon often follows a similar path. Many of his films—from the early short A Summer Dress to the recent feature In the House—end purposely unresolved, with the protagonists recognizing how little they understand their own behavior.
Ozon’s worldview is an acquired taste, as it stands in opposition to that of modern psychological novels and films (admittedly, I’m a sucker for it myself). Yet in Young & Beautiful, that worldview dovetails with a meaningful critique of current social ills. The film presents Isabelle’s double life as unremarkable, the result, most likely, of growing up in an era of pervasive sexual imagery involving teens. Like Jane in Starlet, Isabelle recognizes the economic benefit of being young and beautiful, yet she’s unwilling to believe that selling these qualities comes with any emotional cost. When she’s confronted about her actions by her parents and the police, one of the first things she does is complain about having to give up the money she made through prostitution. “I earned that!” she shouts unashamedly, almost proud of herself for her entrepreneurship. It may be this chilly film’s most chilling moment.