Young & Beautiful (2013) — Image via cineart.be

Young & Beautiful

Directed by François Ozon (2013)

In French cinema, the story of the upper-middle-class woman or girl who becomes a prostitute is practically its own genre at this point. For the first half of Young & Beautiful (Jeune & jolie), one is forced to wonder whether François Ozon’s film is ever going to do anything to set itself apart from its many predecessors. And then, in the second half, one gets an answer — in the form of a thoughtful journey through 17-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth)’s slow recovery from her bad decisions.

Young & Beautiful (2013) — Image via cineart.beYoung & Beautiful is split into four roughly equal parts corresponding to the four seasons. The first part takes place at the seaside resort where Isabelle is spending her summer vacation with her mother Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas), her stepfather Patrick (Frédéric Pierrot), her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), and family friends Véro (Nathalie Richard) and Peter (Djedje Apali). Isabelle has apparently decided that it is time to lose her virginity, and she chooses sporty German Felix (Lucas Prisor) as the vehicle for this development. Her cold and calculating approach is evident from the start. Isabelle arranges to meet up with Felix, she buys him an ice cream, they do the deed on the beach, she thanks him for his trouble, and that’s that. He’s served his purpose.

Young & Beautiful (2013) — Image via cineart.beSkipping ahead a few months, the next part takes us to Paris, where we find that Isabelle has begun working as a prostitute in the hours after her high school lets out for the day, arranging to meet up with well-dressed men in luxury hotels under the pretense that she is a 20-year-old college student. After a few encounters are portrayed in some detail, the inevitable montage shows Isabelle being pulled deeper and deeper into a life of vice. And then, just when we think we know where this is going, something happens. Through a sudden horrifying incident, Isabelle gets a wake-up call, and for the next two parts of the film, the narrative turns toward the aftermath.

Young & Beautiful (2013) — Image via cineart.beDuring her time as a prostitute, one of Isabelle’s clients crassly tells her, “Once a whore, always a whore.” The second half of Young & Beautiful seems devoted to debunking this assertion. Isabelle is scarred by what has happened to her, but through a series of events and encounters, we see her start to come to terms with her experiences. Thankfully, the film does not hide the fact that Isabelle owes her opportunity to do this to a combination of sheer luck, class privilege, and a well-developed set of support structures. But perhaps more importantly, it takes her teenage emotions seriously. Her desire to maintain a cool and distant facade, her aversion to what she perceives as the hypocrisies of the adults around her, and her struggle to comprehend the consequences of her actions are, refreshingly, treated on their own terms.

Ozon has gotten himself in some hot water — likely not unintentionally — with his flippant comments about women’s allegedly widespread fantasies of prostitution. And certainly there are parts of Young & Beautiful that are cringe-worthy, as when Victor’s pubescent voyeurism conveniently facilitates some otherwise unnecessary shots of Vacth in various states of undress. But on the whole, the second half makes the film worthwhile, and if one has to experience the more cliché portion to get there, so be it. Young & Beautiful screens for a second time at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on Saturday, April 19, and will receive a U.S. general release soon after.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.