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Clip: Young & Beautiful

Schoolgirl Isabelle takes up a secret life as a call girl, meeting her clients for hotel-room trysts.

PT1M24S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-371ie 620 349

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Reader rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars (24 votes)

Francois Ozon's Young & Beautiful begins with an image of voyeurism that encapsulates its intriguing contradictions. It is a shot of a teenage girl sunbathing on the beach, glimpsed through a pair of binoculars. But the viewer, it turns out, is not a stranger: it is her younger brother, who is enthusiastically complicit in many aspects of her life.

Whatever else it is about, Young & Beautiful is concerned with a very specific location – a bourgeois family and its flaws and fissures, its secrets and its silences. At its centre is Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who begins working as a prostitute as if it were the most natural progression in the world.

Isabelle (Marine Vacth) in a scene from Francois Ozon's <i>Young and Beautiful</i>.

Isabelle (Marine Vacth) in a scene from Francois Ozon's Young & Beautiful.

It is an attractive, schematic, ambiguous film, carefully structured and sleek. It is divided into four sections corresponding to the four seasons, and punctuated by four songs from Francoise Hardy, melancholy pop tunes from her songbook of young love and longing. There is also a scene in which Isabelle and her fellow students read aloud and then respond to a famous French poem, Rimbaud's Roman, a playful invocation of the delirium of adolescence that begins, ''Nobody's serious when they're 17''. These incorporations seem to summon a stylised dream of youth and its discontents, a dream that within the film seems tactile, revealing and impossible.

Young & Beautiful begins in summer: during her holidays at the beach, Isabelle decides to lose her virginity to Felix (Lucas Prisor), a young German tourist. Ozon films the scene in a manner that explicitly underlines the sense of detachment she feels at this point. Victor (Fantin Ravat), her little brother, helps her slip out of the house at night and presses her for details about what is going on with Felix; he is a co-conspirator and observer at this stage.

And then, almost seamlessly, we discover her in her next phase. She is a young prostitute, catering to what seems to be a wealthy, older clientele. She arrives at a well-appointed hotel, in a suit and heels, looking a little older than 17. She calls herself Lea and she seems to have worked out how to combine prostitution and high school fairly easily. One of her clients, Georges (Johan Leyden), is quite taken with her, and she sees him more than once.

She is not doing it for the money. She is not like the young women in Elles, another recent film about teenage prostitution, who are vulnerable, desperate, in financial strife. She stashes the money in her bedroom cupboard and does not appear to spend it.

This lack of necessity is important for Ozon's vision. It might seem as if he is being evasive or unrealistic about the facts and implications of Isabelle's second life. But he isn't trying to account for her choice, to give it a direct sociological, political or psychological explanation; she is undergoing a dispassionate exploration of the possibilities available to her. And the aftermath – the response to the discovery of her activities – is equally important. Her experiences seem to lead her to view her family and those around her in a harsher light: it is as if everything has been thrown into relief, as if she now sees the transactions and rituals of the rest of her life with a bleaker clarity.

Vacth, who is beautiful, angular and coltish, brings a quietly authoritative, contemplative, undemonstrative quality to the role: she has a mysterious, unreachable air that perfectly suits Ozon's approach.

The other performances – particularly Geraldine Pailhas as Isabelle's mother, with whom she has an edgy, fractious relationship – are well-judged and naturalistic, embedded in a narrative that is a mixture of realism and artifice. Nowhere is this balance more evident than in the final scene, which is a heady mixture of conclusion and inconclusiveness: it involves a cameo from one of the director's favourite actresses, Charlotte Rampling, in a coda full of intimacy and teasing ambiguity.

Young & Beautiful opens on Thursday May 1.