Of the many issues that are guaranteed to get the British media in a fluster, things that are teen-sex related, do get the needles on the moral-panic-o-meter flailing wildly into red. François Ozon’s new film wades straight into this danger zone with radioactive pants on.
Following close on the heels of 2012’s In The House, Jeune et Jolie may have had a relatively fast turn around, but it is still a piece of quality filmmaking. Simply translated as ‘Young and Pretty’, the film is about student Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who is stunningly gorgeous and, at 17-years-old, very young. Indeed, she is at the perfect age for a coming-of-age story, however this is one of the most unusual variants on this perennial favourite.
Despite having an apparently settled, comfortable family life, Isabelle decides to become a prostitute. The obvious response to this would be to ask why on earth a normal middle class teenager would go on the game? Ozon, being Ozon, does not allow us any obvious answers. In fact, he doesn’t provide answers at all, obvious or not.
François Ozon returns to many of the themes and preoccupations found in his earlier films. Principally, there is the investigation of persona, the masks we wear and whittle out of secrecy and lies. Which is the real Isabelle – the daughter, the schoolgirl, the friend, or the internet whore ID and her fleshly counterpart? His last film, In The House, featured a 16-year-old boy whose story-telling at school creates a tale and personality that is impossible to trust.
If this sounds rather intellectual, well, the film is certainly a film of ideas that is nevertheless an engaging watch. Perhaps it’s horribly superficial, but Marine Vacth’s good looks are difficult to ignore. More than that, her strange tale and the effect it has on her family and wider relationships is utterly intriguing. Isabelle is a manipulative, distant character, but it’s hard not to feel some degree of sympathy for her, and certainly for her family.
Isabelle’s mother is distraught and utterly perplexed by her daughter’s actions, her husband seems more accepting, but may be turned on by his step-daughter. Then there is the effect of her double life on her relationships with boys, or young men, her own age. Is Isabelle now damaged to some extent, or simply more mature? It is left to us to decide.
There are perhaps a couple of problems with the film. Firstly, an ethical one: a 17-year-old prostitute is always going to be a little tricky. While Ozon doesn’t punish her ethical transgression with some ignominious fate (probably a good thing), he makes her experiments free of the dangers that most prostitutes face. Apart from one creepy customer, there are no STDs, no violent pimps or their johns. Ozon would no doubt say that this is not his point.
In fact, he explained his intentions in an interview at Cannes this summer, “Her face offered itself as a blank screen upon which I was going to project a lot of fantasies. This sensual film of apprenticeship (sic.) explores the construction of the identity of a young girl.” Certainly Isabelle is a strong character who does her best to build her own identity, and it is undeniable that who she is (who we all are) is partly a result of the expectations – or ‘fantasies’ – of others.
Making Isabelle a ‘blank canvas’ leads us to a second, possible, issue with the film. By leaving her motivations so opaque, Ozon runs the risk of creating a character who is devoid of psychology altogether. Some have seen the film as a bit of male wish-fulfillment too. However, it is difficult to see how the director could have created a character who is so effectively subject to the expectations of others – especially of us, the audience – without making them at least somewhat mysterious. Contemplating Isabelle’s motives is part of the pleasure of the film. Finally, one might question quite how much a female prostitute, however good looking, would fulfil the fantasies of François Ozon, who is gay.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Jeune et Jolie, one gets the feeling that Ozon likes provoking his audience. You may even find it is quite fun to be toyed with. We are all consenting adults, after all.
Jeune et Jolie is released in UK cinemas on Friday 29th November, 2013.