Jeune & Jolie

France (2013) Dir. François Ozon

While on a family summer holiday 17 year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) loses her virginity to her German beau Felix (Lucas Prisor) but feels nothing from the experience. Upon returning home to Paris, Isabelle becomes a prostitute on the quiet, adopting the name Lea with a string of clients she engages via an escort website.  While she finds this an unfulfilling endeavour on the most part Isabelle does seem to connect with a much older man Georges (Johan Leysen) until he dies in the middle of their activities. Isabelle’s secret is finally exposed to the family when the police investigate Georges’s death.

Say what you like about François Ozon but he is a director who is not content with sitting still nor is he shy about addressing contentious subject matters head on, reputation be damned. Ozon has reached that enviable point in his career where he can flit between commercial films and more challenging fare and no-one will bat an eyelid or accusing him of going soft and selling out. Of course having this luxury doesn’t always mean that everything he makes will be a hit – critically or commercially – but that doesn’t mean the end of his career.

This latest sexually charged drama is one that has polarised audiences largely through its opaque intentions – both of Ozon and the lead character. The core subject matter of a 17 year-old selling herself to middle aged men for big bucks sounds salacious enough (although Vacht is 22) and granted the handling of it leaves a lot to be desired. The abundance of leading lady nudity and soft core shenanigans have led to suggestions that this was solely designed to appease middle aged male fantasies rather than investigating what makes a girl like Isabelle sell herself. This is the big problem with the film – that we never find out what her motives or possible hangs up are for this drastic life decision; instead we have something that almost seems to glamorise teenage prostitution. This isn’t a spoiler but an inescapable observation that hangs over the proceedings like the miasma from a public toilet!

In an effective visual allegory Isabelle has an out of body experience watching her disinterested self as Felix is working up a sweat on top of her. For whatever reason this long awaiting cherry popping does nothing for Isabelle but for an equally unexplained reason it leads to her becoming a prostitute. It’s a pretty big leap which does nothing to enlighten us about Isabelle’s mindset or add any dimension to her character other than someone who can apparently have sex dispassionately for financial profit. This isn’t investigated at all which leaves huge gaps in the narrative that are instead dedicated to showing the various tricks Isabelle is requested to turn and the varying attitudes of the men who pay them for her.

Straddling the line between being highly appreciated and a convenient but worthless shag, we are given no cause to sympathise with Isabelle or to try and understand what is going on in her head. This is no fault of Marine Vacth who delivers a fantastic turn and embodies her character with vigour and commitment – it is Ozon’s script that let us down. It also suffers from following hackneyed conventions such as conveniently seeing Georges at a public function and his shocked double turn when he sees her, female companion in tow (his daughter not his wife, who arrives at the end via a baffling cameo from Ozon regular Charlotte Rampling). Even when the secret comes out the expected fireworks don’t go off despite her mother Sylvia (a strong turn from Géraldine Pailhas) being floored by this solar plexus punch of a revelation, which fails to illicit a much needed emotional punch the film is crying out for.

To further support the concerns that this film was designed to appeal to the prurient side of the male audience, a slightly creepy element is injected into the plot in the form of Viktor (Fantin Ravat), Isabelle’s younger brother who seems to have a very unhealthy interest in his sister’s ex life, with an unnerving implication that he has a dark interest in his sister. A boy on the cusp of his own sexual awakening Viktor takes an all too prolonged look at Isabelle humping a pillow in preparation for her maiden voyage on the sea of shagging and also judges the appropriateness of her make-up for her! Is Ozon suggesting an incestuous bent is prevalent in the household or that curious Viktor might end up a hooker’s client in the future? Again, another unfulfilling and rather spurious characterisation, along with the parallel of Isabelle’s college friend Claire (Jeanne Ruff) who is later to the bonking party than her friend yet suffers a similarly disappointing first time.

Ozon is a master filmmaker though so this isn’t a complete dud. As already mentioned the performances are top notch and even if the plot is rather specious the cast draw you into the story. While nothing is too explicit on the sex scene front they offer enough to illustrate the varying needs Isabelle’s clients have and the effect they have on her detached psyche, although the titillation factor is still blatant. The camerawork and photography is competent and well composed and framed, lovingly embracing the age challenging looks of our leading lady.

Jeune & Jolie trips up over its lack of needing to be bolder in its exploration of its subject and its characters over the need to provide some soft porn in the name of high brow drama. Or maybe Ozon was unaware of the behemoth that is Blue Is The Warmest Colour – which trounced this film at Cannes last year – was about to steal his thunder with its far more deftly realised story with even naughtier sex scenes! There is a good drama to be made from this story but oddly, for someone with the skill and gravitas of Ozon, he hasn’t made it.