Francois Ozon is interested in sex. Many of his films (especially his excellent, mysterious Swimming Pool (2003)) examine the curious ways in which our relationships to sex -- the act itself, sure, but also the psychology of the thing, the politics of it all, the consequences of our need for (and hang ups about) physical pleasure -- can bleed into our quotidian lives. A provocateur in some ways, Ozon loves to talk sex, but he doesn't ever seem to love sex. Always there is this sense that we have been enslaved in some fatal way to our drive to pleasure.
Never has Ozon explored his ambivalence toward human sexuality more deliberately than in this, his fourteenth feature. The story of a year in the life of Isabelle, a 17-year-old girl who becomes a prostitute for no apparent reason, baffling her family (and, probably, most audiences), Young and Beautiful is a confusing misfire from a thoughtful director.
What is this film about? A kind of Belle De Jour for the millennial generation, Young and Beautiful tries to explore the wilderness of sexuality through the idea (fanciful and safe as it may be) of an "unlikely prostitute". But, unlike Bunuel's 1967 masterwork, Young and Beautiful simply isn't sure whether Isabelle's choice to become a sex worker is a matter of pathology or agency.
Though she appears to enjoy wielding power over her Johns, since she's a minor we are always uncomfortably aware that she is a victim of rape in each of these (many, many) sex scenes. Indeed, the ultimate nebulousness about her entry into prostitution never feels like anything less than a device, a means to put the audience into a conflicted, vulnerable place. This sense of manipulation is only underlined by the performance by Marine Vacth in the lead role. She is certainly gorgeous, and occasionally she shows flashes of light behind her eyes, but ultimately her Isabelle appears to us as a mostly blank, unknowable, very nearly absent figure.
If only Ozon had been interested in exploring these fascinating and worthy questions -- teenage prostitution, adolescent sexuality, and the Electra complex -- as they related to a flesh and blood character, rather than this "young and beautiful" abstraction.