Directed by: François Ozon
Starring: Marine Vacth, Geraldine Pailhas, Frederic Pierrot
If the prostitution industry were to make a promotional video, I fear it might play out like parts of François Ozon’s latest feature. Seventeen year old Isabelle lives an exciting life, plying her occasional trade in a clean and generally safe environment where she makes a healthy profit. There’s no need to worry about a middle man with even the law inclined to turn a blind eye. A troubling portrayal perhaps, this is not even the biggest problem with Jeune et Jolie. Combining a somewhat rosy picture of teenage prostitution with what could be a trashy young adult novel; all the glamorous sheen in the world can’t hide the empty soul at the heart of an otherwise entertaining picture.
Spread across four seasons, Ozon first introduces us to Isabelle (Marine Vacth) in the summer while on a seaside holiday with her family. She’s a beautiful, measured young woman just about to turn seventeen. Sexually inexperienced, yet intrigued by the possibilities, we are first alerted to her experimentation through the voyeuristic eyes of her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) who watches silently after stumbling across her masturbating. She then takes the next step, losing her virginity to a sun kissed young German with disappointing results.
Moving into autumn, Isabelle is back in her comfortable Paris home with her mother Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas), step-father Patrick (Frédéric Pierrot) and her brother. Returning to school, she has also started working secretly as a prostitute, advertising her services on the internet before meeting men, usually in hotel rooms. They are all significantly older, some of them unpleasant, but none of them violent. She even strikes up a relationship of sorts with elderly Georges (Johan Leysen) who becomes a repeat customer. Progressing through the seasons, she has to deal with the problems caused by her secret life, the distance this creates amongst her schoolmates, and the impact it has on her loving parents.
Marine Vacth looks the part as the striking Isabelle. She is suitably coy and menacingly manipulative in turn. But there is an impenetrable inscrutability that makes it hard to explore her motivations. Be it life and death situations, humiliating abuse, relationship break ups or just discussions around homework, she reacts to them all in the same detached manner. It’s very difficult to decipher her icy demeanour.
Understanding becomes impossible without cues from Isabelle, because Ozon provides none himself. The closest we get are a couple of Françoise Hardy songs with applicable lyrics. More time is spent closing off potential explanations. It doesn’t seem to be money because she never spends it and her parents have plenty anyway which they’re willing to share. Her family are also pleasant and supportive and she’s popular when she wants to be. The closest Ozon comes to an explanation is a quest for gratification based on previous let-downs and a conversation with an older woman who reveals her unfulfilled desire to have had sex for money.
It is here that trouble is encountered. The lack of explanation, or at least effort to explore Isabelle’s sex for hire experimentation, veers worryingly close to the promotion of an idea of prostitutes as young, beautiful and independent women who customers are practically doing a favour by hiring. Sure, a couple of clients are verbally spiteful, but we’re even treated to an attractive montage of Isabelle at work midway through the film.
Ultimately though, this is all a smokescreen. There’s a nagging feeling that increased in intensity for me throughout that Ozon is not making a morally ambiguous film about sexual awakening, the exploitation of pleasure and experimentation through prostitution. In reality, there’s very little substance beneath the glossy, provocative exterior. It’s at heart a trashy teen soap told by a master stylist that just happens to be set in an X-rated and controversial world.
Style is certainly there in abundance. It’s beautifully shot and elegantly paced, consistently engaging from the start and complemented by strong performances. Vacth takes centre stage, but equally strong is the work by Pailhas, perplexed and dismayed by her mysterious and baffling daughter. Sylvie provides the closest thing to an effective emotional link connecting Vacth’s quietly compelling yet distanced Isabelle to the consequences, both real and imagined, of her high risk behaviour. But it all orbits a vacuum.
Jeune et Jolie is seductive, alluring, and at times unpleasant. The decision to explore sexuality in the context of such a contentious area probably needed a more thoughtful approach. But the real problem here is not that Ozon’s pushing a dangerous message, more that the centre of the story is empty. This is just a weeknight soap dressed up in the finery of intelligent and emotionally brave cinema, a disguise that can only fool momentarily. Once the illusion is broken, all that’s left is a deflating con.