Review: Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful)

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Young and Beautiful (2013)

            Directed by: François Ozon. Starring: Marine Vatch, Géraldine PailhasFrédéric Pierrot, Charlotte Rampling

 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.

jeune-et-jolie-marine-vacth-03-636-370Ozon 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.jeune-jolie 2

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.

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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.

Review: Fruitvale Station

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DIR. Ryan Coogler. Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Dias, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray

 

Based on the true story of Oscar Grant and the tragic events that occurred at a Californian train station on New Year’s Eve 2008, Fruitvale resembles Crash in its exploration of racial tension and a Greek tragedy in it’s palpable sense of foreboding.

After wowing at both Sundance and Cannes, it was a surprise Fruitvale didn’t become a mainstay at the Oscars too and I sincerely hope this doesn’t limit its release or the attention it gets, for this is supremely effective and affecting filmmaking.

We meet Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, of The Wire fame) in bed with his girlfriend, attempting to navigate accusations of cheating. Despite his skittish, defensive and frustrated behaviour, we also see in him a doting father assuaging bedtime nightmares and a caring son remembering a birthday. The narrative goes on to continually reminds us of this good-natured streak; giving free advice in the supermarket, helping a pregnant lady find a bathroom, washing dishes with his Mum.

o-FRUITVALE-STATION-facebookHowever, there are larger, external forces that threaten individual will. Despite Oscar’s attempts at reform after a year spent in prison for drug-dealing, the film builds an uneasy foreboding to such intensity that it becomes a question of not ‘if’ things are going to kick off, but ‘when’. The only heavy-handed example of this climactic structure is a hit-and-run accident involving a dog, far too obviously suggesting an unfortunate and unnecessary death. Of course, the primer to the dramatic unfolding of events is real-life footage of policemen beating on young black men at a train station, subsequently imbuing the film with a trope of classic tragedy: inevitability.

The moments of superlative filmmaking however come in those downplayed; we just have to register the suspicious, hesitant glances of white folk in their encounters with the black characters to know that segregation, prejudice and racism have left an indelible mark on American society. Caught between his potential and his past, Oscar can barely avoid the expectation for him to do something wrong.

 Much of the nuance in Fruitvale Station is derived from a breakout turn from Jordan, who effortlessly shifts from masculine bravado brimming with energy, to a mama’s boy in need of some TLC.

bRO3oVDThe women in Oscar’s life are also worth more than a mention. Octavia Spencer gives a performance of strength and stoicism, excavating past potential clichés to depict an emotional and strained mother-son relationship. Whilst relative newcomer Melonie Dias as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina gives an incredibly natural and poignant turn, as the aggrieved and then bereaved – negotiating young love and the responsibilities of parenthood.

Schmaltz is never far away, and occasionally director Ryan Coogler dips his toe in a maudlin pool. The soundtrack’s reverential tone, forcedly orchestrating emotion feels unnecessary and stylised amongst an otherwise low-key and naturalistic aesthetic.

Whilst there’s also the sense we’re not given the whole story. Perspective nor reasoning is ill-afforded the macho, aggressive, trigger-happy cops that detain Oscar and his friends at Fruitvale Station for allegedly starting a fight. And whilst that suits a narrative geared towards creating sympathy for a young life wasted, complete factual accuracy might have been compromised.

Ultimately though, Coogler delivers a mesmerising and absorbing drama, excelling most when he allows his actors moments of genuine tenderness and intimacy.

The final scene is chaotic and chilling, and as the deafening sound of a fatal mistake rings clear, the film drives home a devastating climactic irony.

Verdict: Searing, relevant and requiring of a box of tissues close by. A film that will stay with you for long after the credits roll.