Francois Ozon delivers an unsentimental and stylish portrayal of teenage prostitution, and catapults the alluring Marine Vacth to mainstream attention.
Starting with a family holiday in a seaside location, Ozon depicts the gradual loss of innocence of the detached Isabelle. With a taciturn manner that transcends the ordinarily sulky teenager, Isabelle is on the precipice of sexual discovery. And what she finds out takes her on a very unusual journey indeed.
A voyeuristic tone is immediately established – a trope those of whom are well versed in Ozon will be familiar with. His previous film In the House saw a teenage boy spying on a middle-class family, similarly Jeune et Jolie opens with a young boy staring through binoculars at a topless teenage girl on the beach (a strangeness further compounded by our discovering that he is the girl’s brother).
Equally reflective of In the House, is Ozon’s interest in the discontent induced by the trappings of middle-class suburbia. Isabelle wants for nothing. Her family indulge in theatre visits, dinner parties and discussions of skiing holidays, and yet Isabelle becomes increasingly distant.
Strategically losing her virginity to a German boy, Isabelle finds herself disinterested and frostily unresponsive during the experience itself. Inexplicably, the narrative jumps to a new season and to Isabelle’s new life as a prostitute, wherein she arranges meetings via texts and arrives at hotels in heels and a blouse stolen from her mother, with little clue as what to expect.
Ozon refrains from criticizing nor legitimising Isabelle’s lifestyle. Nor does he explain away or justify her motivations. Indeed, the film jumps from the family holiday to Isabelle’s persona as the infinitely more glamorous and mature ‘Lea’ firmly established. As she encounters a variety of customers – some tender and ‘ordinary’, to the downright derogatory and sadistic, Isabelle hardly bats an eyelid and complies with every request. She falls into a routine of concealing her double-life, telling her parent’s she’s off with friends and her friends that she’s a virgin. There’s no hint as to the pleasure Isabelle obtains from these on-goings; the money she stashes in her wardrobe and Vacth exudes a cool disinterest, her steely exterior belying the sadness brimming in her eyes.
It’s clear Ozon wants to replicate the allure experienced for ‘Lea’s’ customers for the audience. With her tousled hair, rouge lips and come hither bedroom eyes, Vacth is one of the most arresting young actresses to have appeared on screen in recent years. One certainly doesn’t object to her considerable screen time.
And yet the lifestyle itself is unremittingly gritty. Although the money is high-end, Isabelle’s encounters are pretty bleak and soulless; a style conveyed through the stark, minimalist design of the hotels or the uncomfortable and mechanical setting of a car. Pretty Woman this isn’t. Whilst the Parisian aesthetic arguably adds a glamour to proceedings, with sleek interiors and ‘Lea’s’ uniform exuding class, Isabelle’s repeated habit of showering after her encounters acknowledges the seedier side to the job. Isabelle feels tainted, or as she states ‘dirty’.
However, Jeune et Jolie falters in its ability to generate sympathy or attachment to the characters. Vatch is beautiful to look at, and delivers a nuanced and beguiling performance, but her spoilt-rich kid persona and seeming boredom, give us little emotional depth to invest in. Vacth nails this vacuity and moody silence, but the lack of passion in her characterization and her love life make it difficult for us to feel that way about the film itself. Even when she engages in a ‘proper’ relationship for the first time, her automated, almost habitual response to her boyfriend’s bedroom struggles signal an absence of real feeling.
It would perhaps be too simple to dismiss the seasonal structuring of the film as exemplary of the continuing, cyclical nature of this problem. If Isabelle is eventually dissuaded from such a lifestyle, Ozon certainly doesn’t intimate that this is an inherently solvable issue. Indeed, it throws up more questions than it cares to answers, and revels in its open-ended complexity. Although a sense of resolution is proffered in the shape of a more age-appropriate and sexually inexperienced boyfriend, Isabelle’s interest wanes quickly and given her closest companion in the film was a silver-haired pensioner you expect it won’t last.
The other performances in the film are certainly worthy of mention. Geraldine Pailhas as Isabelle’s mother Sylvie perfectly communicates the frustrated disapproval and exasperation of a woman who has no idea how to relate to, or understand her daughter. The two actresses – especially during a confrontation scene – depict their strained relationship with conviction and poignancy. Isabelle’s stepfather (Frederic Pierrot) provides a kinder contrast to her haughty mother, though one suspects this isn’t the ideal approach when Isabelle turns on the call-girl charm during a late-night conversation. Meanwhile, the cameo from Charlotte Rampling toward the end, though dignified and emotive, feels somewhat contrived and pulls you out of the film slightly.
I particularly enjoyed the film’s depiction of the varying responses elicited by Isabelle’s transformation. Whilst the women are seen to feel threatened or wary of her, the men seem more forgiving and Isabelle’s therapist (a male) even validates her earnings, where her mother wishes to confiscate them.
Where fellow French film and story of sexual awakening Blue is the Warmest Colour revelled in intimacy, insight and subversion, giving us the perspective and voice of a young girl discovering her sexual identity, Jeune et Jolie falters. It skates along the surface of its subject matter, but never peels beyond the layers of its heroine’s clothes. Ozon’s decision to remain at an emotional distance from Isabelle and leave all possible conclusions open-ended, he risks excluding Isabelle’s perspective altogether, merely conveying a stylish male fantasy rather than a sincere portrayal of a young woman’s turbulent path to sexual maturity.
Verdict: Uneven in tone and more surface than substance, this is nevertheless, a film as beautiful, intriguing and provocative as it’s lead actress.