Wednesday, July 23, 2014

'Young & Beautiful' (July 25th and 26th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL screens Friday July 25th at 7:15 pm and Saturday July 26th at 8:50 pm at the Cleveland ICinematheque.]

Review by Milan Paurich

In Francois Ozon’s YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL, 17-year old Isabelle (a strikingly assured Marine Vacth) loses her virginity while on vacation with her family. Upon returning home, she decides to start turning tricks at 300 francs a pop. Except for an odd moment during the deflowering scene when Isabelle briefly steps out of her body to watch herself having sex, Ozon provides no explanation for his protagonist’s behavior.

Yes, Isabelle can detach herself emotionally from sex. But so do a lot of other people—male and female, young and old—without necessarily choosing prostitution as a career path. The lack of any psychological grounding for her actions ultimately renders YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL as affectless and shallow as Isabelle herself. By electing to withhold such vital information, Ozon makes it increasingly easy to emotionally detach yourself from his film.

Why should we care what makes Isabelle tick if her director doesn’t seem to give a damn either? Even if it was a deliberate choice (“Why does anybody do anything?”), it still feels like a cheat—and lazy screenwriting.

Isabelle doesn’t seem to like her mother (Geraldine Pailhas) very much, but how many 17 year-old girls do? Since her family is comfortably middle class, she clearly doesn’t need the money. Unlike the lead character in Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC VOLUME 1, Isabelle doesn’t even seem to derive much pleasure from sex. She makes turning tricks look about as exciting, or sexy, as going to the dentist.

There have been a lot of great movies made about prostitution. Steven Soderbergh’s THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE and Jean-Luc Godard’s MY LIFE TO LIVE used prostitution as a metaphor for capitalism. In Alan J. Pakula’s KLUTE, Bree Daniels’ profession was a way to shut herself off emotionally from the “straight” world. And in his erotic masterpiece BELL DE JOUR, Luis Bunuel treated a bored housewife’s hooking as the template for surreal fantasy sequences. The problem with YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL is that there’s no there there. Like Isabelle, it’s all surface.

A couple of scenes hint at the film it might have been. Attending a rowdy high school party, Isabelle floats through the crowd of teenagers like an exotic alien visiting from another planet. (I was reminded of Scarlett Johansson’s extraterrestrial in Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN.)

Isabelle’s meeting with the widow (the great Charlotte Rampling) of a former client is both provocative and unexpectedly moving. Rampling, star of two of Ozon’s finest works, UNDER THE SAND and SWIMMING POOL, brings such passion, truth and, yes, substance to her role that you wish the entire movie had been built around her.

Ozon, one of the most exciting post-New Wave French directors (his illustrious peers include Andre Techine, Arnaud Desplechin, Abdellatif Kechiche and the late, great Patrice Chereau), has long been a personal favorite. Which makes my disappointment with YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL all the more palpable. Like an off film by the equally prolific and eclectic Woody Allen, it seems like the only reason Ozon made it was to fill his personal one-movie-a-year quota. 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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