One thing you really have to admire the French for is tricking its audiences into believing that the softcore porn they're watching is actually an art house film. Take “Farewell, My Queen,” which appeared non-exploitative even while tossing in a lesbian romance that apparently wasn't even in the book it was based on. So I certainly have to tip my hat for almost making “Young And Beautiful” look like anything other than what it is: a male fantasy which is a mere money shot away from any run-of-the-mill Internet smut.
The title is very apt, however. The girl, Isabelle, (the very talented Marine Vacth) is certainly young, only seventeen. And she is certainly, almost impossibly beautiful. So beautiful it almost seems natural that she would want to profit from it. When we first meet her, we see more of her than we expected (in the first two minutes anyway). Indeed, the film quickly forces its audience to become voyeurs, since she is framed through an onlooker's binoculars, making us vicarious spies as she removes her top to sunbathe. Plus, the person who was spying on her? That was her little brother, who also peeks in when she happens to be, um, pleasuring herself. Soon, we see her lose her virginity to a boy she's not even particularly fond of, which leaves her cold and disillusioned. When she returns home, she also accidentally sees her stepfather naked. It all seems like a bit much.
Since “Young And Beautiful” aims to show, not tell, the character development will be a bit light, but it shouldn't be so nearly nonexistent. Right after Isabelle loses her virginity and leaves her family's charming vacation spot, we next see her heading to a motel room for her first paid tryst. So yeah, this girl just decides to become a prostitute, and we don't see when she made the decision, how she got the idea, or why she decided to take such an extreme step. To the film's credit, she's not depicted as sick or suffering from daddy issues, and she's still a somewhat inept 17-year-old even when she gets some experience under her belt.
And you wonder why conservatives are so afraid of the French. Heck, after seeing this, I'm almost afraid of the French.
But the beautiful thing about these types of French films is that they simultaneously take sex so seriously and so casually that it makes us forget our hysteria over an act that is as much a part of our lives as breathing. But by placing so much emphasis on the act and on Isabelle's outer rather than inner life holds “Young And Beautiful” from becoming the thoughtful, intelligent film it was obviously meant to be. Instead, you'll be baffled when that little brother mentioned above helps her with her makeup, and sleeps in her bed so he can press her for details about her date. Also, will she ever stop pouting and smile? And smirking doesn't count!
Writer-director François Ozon previously explored illicit, unsettling desire in a previous film, and another Milwaukee Film Festival alum, “In The House.” But “Young And Beautiful” left me feeling confused about what he was trying to accomplish. When Isabelle eventually does get discovered and has to face the consequences of her choices, even that isn't depicted well. How is it, exactly, that only her parents and a few of their friends find out, while no one at her school does? That seems far-fetched, especially in our new digital age, where a single remark can quickly spread to thousands or millions of people via social media. The intentions are good, even fascinating, but they don't even come close to being fulfilled.