Young & Beautiful
Directed by Francois Ozon
Throughout his career as a director, François Ozon has openly played with genre and theory, making sweeping emotional tales cold and ascetic or subtly exploiting tongue-in-cheek campiness to acknowledge the didacticism of his exaggerated presentations of sexuality and gender. Of late, his narratives have deconstructed sexuality as an evolution of familial presentation. With Dans la Maison and Young & Beautiful, the narrators have been unreliable and fluent, manipulating the audience and themselves while in-story character motivations stem from deviations in, and perceptions of, the family unit.
Initially, his latest blithely presented work of steely precision assumes the perspective of Victor (Fantin Ravat), a pre-pubescent, presumably homosexual boy fascinated with his 17-year-old sister, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), and her nascent presentation of sexual awareness. Coyly watching her humping a pillow through an open door when she's unaware — a voyeuristic, hyperbolized visual trajectory of familial observation and perversity — he also helps her prepare outfits for dates with a foreign boy she's met on vacation. Envious of her ability to project the cultural passivity he wishes to inhabit, he excitedly asks her what it was like to lose her virginity.
As hinted at in this first vignette, one that changes abruptly when a season card pops up, denoting a new narrator, Isabelle wasn't impressed by her first sexual experience. Without a great deal of context, at least initially, we're thrust into her experiences as an online escort, meeting men routinely for casual sexual encounters. Throughout, her comfort with her body and confidence in exploiting her sexuality grow exponentially, giving her the upper hand during the third vignette, where her mother finds out what her daughter has been up to.
Although it's never verbalized, the idea of prostitution as a mode of female empowerment is a well known, albeit antiquated, tenet of feminist theory. Here, it's used passive-aggressively, allowing a girl that felt used by the degrading act to take control or attribute value— determining her worth as the marginalized and objectified — to her titular youth and beauty. Isabelle has no need for the actual money — she stashes it away in her closet methodically — but uses her knowledge and ability to place men in a position of weakness, victims of their desires, to reverse gender roles when she enters another traditionalist sexual union.
Ozon, ever careful not to take himself too seriously, makes all of this exact and unembellished, inserting discomforting and unrealistic family dynamics involving dinner table jokes about not showering after sex and "coming" to the table to make campy this presentation of undergraduate theory. He's also conscious of how the identity is formed. It's no mistake that Isabelle's stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) has no interest in playing father figure to his queer stepson and promiscuous stepdaughter, neither is it an accident that Ozon lingers on shots of he and Isabelle walking in other each other in the nude.
Without saying it, Ozon is making some implications about psychosexual development, imposing a fractured perspective onto our assumed concept of the reality presented. Isabelle is a composite of ideas thrust onto her from those around her, rather than a singular character with clear motivations.
While this is an interesting idea, the presentation of seasons as a shift in narration never quite convinces or varies enough to have the playful sense of manipulation Ozon excelled with in Dans la Maison. Young & Beautiful, like many of his films, is clever and intriguing, but falls just short of greatness, being too facile and self-conscious to balance its ambitions with narrative demands.
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