Although François Ozon's Young & Beautiful comes loaded with the director's signature sexual frankness, it mostly lacks his taste for black humor. He also leaves behind his penchant for aping Hitchcock, and instead serves up a straightforward psychological drama about a young woman's sexual development.
The movie stars Marine Vacth as Isabelle, a 17-year-old who loses her virginity while on a summer holiday with her family. Upon returning home, she explores her newfound sexual powers and begins working as a prostitute, eventually developing something of a relationship with an older john who treats her better than her other clients.
After an unexpected event severs her bond to that older man, Isabelle's already concerned mother (Géraldine Pailhas) learns of her daughter's secret life, causing a great deal of conflict in her family and leading to complications between Isabelle and her stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot). Meanwhile, her younger half-brother (Fantin Ravat) wrestles with puberty.
Vacth is in her early twenties and only about five years older than Isabelle, and she ably captures her character's complicated inner-life. It's a rich and difficult role that requires her to show us Isabelle's nagging dissatisfaction and frustrations: her tumultuous relationship with her mother, her growing understanding of how she can trade her sexuality for emotional and monetary support, and her realization that she has unwisely isolated herself from everyone around her. Vacth deserves praise not just for being able to hit so many different notes, but for her restraint as well. Isabelle never comes off as a symbol or a metaphor; she's just a typical young woman having problems processing emotions she thinks she's mature enough to handle.
Ozon utilizes supporting characters to suggest other thematic elements. We see her brother's development in short glimpses that suggest the different ways that society deals with sexuality in teenage boys rather than in teenage girls. Elsewhere, a climactic scene between Isabelle and her favorite john's wife (Charlotte Rampling) shows how Isabelle's problems aren't new, and are unlikely to find an easy resolution.
Young & Beautiful begs comparison to another French movie, the previous year's Blue Is the Warmest Color. Both are unsentimental, explicit examinations of a young woman trying to comprehend and control her sexual desires, but whereas Blue had an operatic quality to it -- the emotions were huge and it was three hours long -- Ozon keeps his tale lean. While that's admirable, the one complaint that can be levied against the film is that it feels too familiar. As well made as it is, the movie has nothing new to say about the difficulties of becoming an adult and the growing pains that come with sexual maturity.
While Young & Beautiful may be a minor film for Ozon, it's hardly a lesser one, and it provides a hopefully career-making performance for Marine Vacth, a very talented young actress who seems ready to take on any challenge.