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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Young and Beautiful

A French teen lives a secret life as a sex worker in Francois Ozon's darkly stylish coming-of-age story.
By Daniel Herborn
April 08, 2014
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Young and Beautiful

A French teen lives a secret life as a sex worker in Francois Ozon's darkly stylish coming-of-age story.
By Daniel Herborn
April 08, 2014
  shares

For French teen Isabelle (Marine Vacth), sex is a huge deal, a world of fascination and dread, but her first underwhelming sexual encounter with German lunk Felix (Lucas Prisor) on a summer holiday leaves her nothing but cold. She imagines herself impassively watching the scene from a distance, completely bereft of feeling.

She is next seen secretly working as a sex worker in Paris and leading something of a double life, vaguely deflecting questions about her romantic life and appearing to her friends a quiet, unremarkable student.

Taking on the name Lea, she uses a website and a second phone to meet clients. There is something about the orderliness of the work that seems to appeal to her, a clarity about what will happen and what it will mean. Yet she seems to go about it with an air of dispassionate practicality, learning the tricks of the trade and methodically stashing money in her comfortable family home.

As with previous Francois Ozon films (Swimming Pool, 8 Women), Young & Beautiful often uncomfortably positions the viewer as a voyeur; it begins with her brother spying on her as she loosens her bikini top at a beach and often balances queasiness with elegance. Also familiar is the structural formalism: it's presented as a story in four parts, with each quadrant focusing on a new season and matched with a Francoise Hardy tune.

Neat construction aside, Young & Beautiful hangs on a breakthrough performance by the striking Vacth, a former model, who doesn't so much fill in the blanks of the essentially enigmatic protagonist but instead makes both her moments of provocation and melancholy absorbing.

Working as a kind of counterpoint to the moments of finger-wagging didacticism in Lars Von Trier's recent Nymphomaniac, Young & Beautiful has no firm conclusions it wants to make about Isabelle's choices and is only cursorily interested in how or why she starts being paid for sex.

Even as the story takes a darker turn as Isabelle begins being recognised by her clients and possibly becomes attached to Georges (Johan Leysen) — a mild-mannered, elderly john — writer-director Ozon largely eschews histrionics in favour of understated and gorgeously rendered ennui. There's also a pivotal cameo from Charlotte Rampling as Georges' wife, Alice, and sterling work from Géraldine Pailhas as Sylive, Isabelle's mother. It's a polished, stylishly ambivalent work, one that provides no easy answers for either its audience or its heroine.

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