Jeune et Jolie (2013)
Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie is the portrait of a young schoolgirl from a well to do middle-class background and her coming-of-age into adolescence in modern day Paris. The film left me with a lot of questions but very few answers and it took me a while to get my head around what was actually happening here and why but also what Ozon was trying to tell us with this story. For me the film did not deliver for the reasons which I will discuss later but it did trigger a curiosity at my end to find out more about Francois Ozon and search for an explanation of the behaviour of his protagonist Isabelle.
The story in the film is broken into four chapters, corresponding with each of the four seasons and each with its own theme song by Francoise Hardy, which gives the film structure but was otherwise a bit of a folly completely lost on me. It is the character study of the 17 year old ravishingly beautiful Isabelle (former model and now actress Marine Vacth) who we first meet during her family’s summer holidays in the South of France. It is there that she loses her virginity to a German summer fling who enthusiastically pursues her but whom she is actually completely indifferent about and leaves behind at the end of the holidays without even saying goodbye. She appears to undergo the intimate scene on the beach in a fairly mechanical way and seemingly without any pleasure whatsoever (poignantly expressed by Ozon by showing us Isabelle standing outside herself as a spectator, watching it as it happens).
Her younger brother Victor, in the middle of his own nascent sexuality, is more interested to hear about the whole event afterwards than Isabelle seems to be. It is there and then that we are made to understand that this teenage girl may be dealing with issues of her sexual awareness that come with growing up into adulthood but little do we know what will happen next when back in Paris after the summer we discover that Isabelle has turned to prostitution and set up her own website through which she gets in contact with her high-end clientele. The viewer is completely left in the dark as to why Isabelle has decided to do this and has her regular meetings in hotels with her clients. The cool indifference she portrays during her first sexual encounter in the summer is hardly an indication of things to come. It is clearly not out of a lack of money or affection within her family but the fact that Ozon has decided to keep Isabelle’s motivations completely obscure makes it difficult to connect with her as a character and warm up to her as a person. Isabelle in turn does little to connect with the people around her – her parents and the therapist which her mother forces her to see – and remains an enigma and that made it difficult for me to make up my mind as to whether her acting proves to be a fascinating and subtle performance or to conclude that there was not much acting going on at all.
In an interview during the Cannes Film Festival Ozon (8 Femmes (2002); The Swimming Pool (2003) and Dans La Maison (2013)) explained that what he wanted to show in the film is that the period of adolescence, often in French cinema presented as an idealised period of happiness, is instead more often a turbulent period of struggles within. The way he wants to show this to the viewing audience is not by comforting them or making the analysis for them but by keeping a level of mystery and by asking questions and not necessarily answering any of them. In doing that Ozon equally refrains from passing any kind of judgement on the behaviour of Isabelle. He steps back, provides us all the material we need but makes us come up with our own answers. In a way he makes us observe all of this through the binoculars through which Isabelle’s brother views her (and we with him) whilst she is lying on the beach in the opening scenes. If there is any judgement Ozon makes it is probably exposing the hypocrisy of the middle-class and the deconstruction of bourgeois values when he shows us Isabelle’s mother who is baffled by the decision of her daughter to prostitute herself but at the same time appears to have a secret, extra-marital affair herself or even Isabelle’s step-father who at one point in the film is almost flirtatious with his step-daughter.
I was certainly not blown away by the film although I am sure it will prove to be a breakthrough for Marine Vacth and propel her into that selective circle of great French actresses. Unfortunately, I have still not made up my mind whether it is this film which has shown us her acting skills and in that sense she does remain an enigma to me.
Director: Francois Ozon
Writer: Francois Ozon
Stars: Marine Vacth, Geraldine Pailhas, Frederic Pierrot, Fantin Ravat, Johan Leysen, Charlotte Rampling
Runtime: 93 min