With Young & Beautiful, Francois Ozon presents a film about underage prostitution for the Curzon crowd. Complete with regular viagra and vibrator in the closet jokes, as if to provide relief from all that 'heavy stuff'. Safe, forgettable and comfortingly oblique, Ozon's film will play well with audiences before disappearing amongst the bulk of other arthouse dramas with a social conscious it blends so anonymously into.
Charting the young (and beautiful) Isabelle's (Marine Vacth) slide from holiday romance into casual high-class prostitution, Ozon draws the course of sexual malaise with a choiceful aloofness. Ignoring the why, often even the how, of Isabelle's career choice, he tracks her largely expressionless emotional journey into the trade with a curious detachment, bordering on apathy.
Its all well put together ,but frustratingly predictable, both in its narrative turns and directorial choices. A no-risk venture, titilating in its plentiful nudity and provacatively presented sexual encounters, but never really daring in its handling of the topic. Ozon presents the situation as it is, following her engagements from a voyeuristic but non-predatory distance, and let the audience either fill the blanks, or accept the expanse he leaves. There are hints of subtext, and her relationship with her brother (who has a troubling level of investment in her sex life) are interesting. Ozon opens the film with the boy ogling his nude-bathing sister through binoculars, his familial connection unrevealed at the time, in what is the film's only surprise turn.
Everything else though, is by the numbers filmmaking. From the predictable plot point that interrupts her far too smooth transition into a professional double life, to the scenes exploring the inevitable parental outrage that turns to confusion and insecurity, to her eventual disconnect between her peers, they as emergent sexual experimenters and she a silently seasoned pro. Everything feels too shallow for a film handling a topic so weighty. Some might find it to be subtle, restraint in the face of the overwhelming urge to impose sleight moral judgement, but the overtness of other aspects of the film suggest this not to be the case.
Most irritating are the particularly rote music choices. Every song is overwhelmingly literal, as if substituting actual information about our protoganist's state with lyrics telling us what she is thinking is a suitable surrogate. French pop ballads with lyrics directly related to the onscreen action play over any scene where a meaning is required. As Isabelle has her virginity stolen, on the track Francois Hardy croons about loss of innocence and youth. When sombre feeling is needed a classical note evokes it. It is insultingly obvious, and near the end, when Crystal Castles is laid heavily over a party scene, the go-to party choice since Skins laid the foundations for how youth parties were to be played on screen, many folk will be too busy yawning or sighing to be hit with the jarring mid-sequence transition from electro back to French pop and the association suggested heavily with it.
This is perhaps unfair, there is nuance in Ozon's film that eludes his song selections, it is just symptomatic of an overbearing trend towards literalism and surfaceness in the film that produces tiresome final results. If standardly staged party scene with balcony encounter wasn't enough, Ozon includes standard classroom scene with overly eloquent high school students. This following an atonal scene where students read an Arthur Rimbaud poem about youth and summer (No Ones Serious at 17) looking directly into the camera - the director again clumsily using elements other than his own filmmaking technique to ascribe meaning.
Ozon's film is a technically proficient one, and Vacth is capable in a role that doesn't demand too much of her. It just seems that a film with such potential to take paths that should reveal a real stance about something significant, the resulting film is more than a little insipid and empty; its directorial voice as detached and non-present as its protagonist.