Isabelle is indeed as “Young & Beautiful” as Francois Ozon’s film’s title promises. She is so slender that in the many scenes where she’s nude, her rib cage is quite pronounced.
When the film begins, she’s 16. (Marine Vacth, the actress playing her, was 22.) She loses her virginity to a German boy named Felix whom she met on summer vacation.
When the film ends, she is 17 and has spent some secret time as a call girl in her late afternoons. It is, after all the only part of the day that a teenage girl still in school has free.
She is also utterly empty and vacant and continues to be even after the death of an older client during a session forces her secret into the open. If you look carefully at the film – especially at its ending – you might find something distinctly ironic about the film’s title. You might also find something a bit sociopathic about Isabelle for all her vapidity.
This is very much beauty that is only skin deep.
When Francois Ozon’s film was first shown – and for quite a while after – critics practically trampled over each other to get to their keyboards and compare it to Luis Bunuel’s masterwork “Belle de Jour.” To me, the narrative similarities couldn’t possibly be less consequential and the comparisons, therefore, couldn’t be more misleading.
“Belle de Jour” was Bunuel’s sophisticated and black-humored surrealist fantasy from a 1928 novel by Joseph Kessel that was the very stuff of highly consumable erotic fantasy. Bunuel’s heroine is a married woman leading a luxurious bourgeois and double life. She is played by Catherine Deneuve, who became half of one of the great actress/director partnerships in film history. Deneuve understood perfectly the deep and dark and very cruel uses which the great surrealist film patriarch found for her perfect, regal blonde beauty in both “Belle de Jour” and “Tristana.” (In contrast, for instance, I think Marilyn Monroe understood how much her films made fun of her and didn’t like it.)
Deneuve knew that it was the almost unreal and distant nature of her own beauty – so adaptable to advertising at its most upscale – that was the essence of Bunuel’s joke on the bourgeoisie, whose “discreet charms” he would later treat with glorious surreal ironies in one of his most famous films. Deneuve got it. She was, perhaps, the most sapient beauty movies had after Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. She was not only in on the joke, she was its enthusiastic co-perpetrator.
If there’s a joke in Ozon’s “Young & Beautiful” it’s a joke that dares not speak its name (and one that probably shouldn’t either). There are moments when something is clearly struggling to emerge from the visual details of this story – when it becomes clear that of all Isabelle’s clients, it is her white-haired old man who is the most erotically fulfilling to her. That might have taken the film, though, to places where no current Western society, not even the French, is ready for ready-made consumer sex fantasy to go.
The ending of the film, after his death, beckons the director to places where a sociopath might go and a wise student of Bunuel probably needed to consider. But the film won’t go there either. It turns out, then, to be nothing more than a completely empty and vapid tale about an empty and vapid 17-year-old call girl. Which, if you ask me, makes the whole film more than a little creepy.