It’s convenient to call “Young and Beautiful” a coming-of-age film, but it’s also unjustly incomplete. The 2013 French film, opening Friday at the Hipp, follows its 17-year-old protagonist into much darker places than comparable films —Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto”, for example — and taps into terrors and emotions that transcend teenage identity crises.
Moonlighting as a prostitute is usually not a factor in those kinds of crises, but it’s the central conflict in François Ozon’s film. Isabelle—played by Marine Vacth, who resembles a prettier, Gallic Mischa Barton—loses her virginity on a French beach to a German bro. When the summer ends, she’s not the same girl as she was before.
The scenario sounds cliche, and Ozon makes you believe “Summertime Sadness” is going to sob through the speakers at any minute. But it doesn’t.
Instead, a power-suited and stilettoed Isabelle struts into an hotel to meet a man who could be her grandfather. She calls herself “Lea,” a 20-year-old literature sophomore at The Sorbonne.
“You look different from your picture,” the man says, setting us up to believe this is one of those times Tinder goes wrong, until Isabelle takes off her clothes. She leaves with 300 euros, profits she will add to a pocketbook she hides in her closet for some unknown purchase.
This abrupt and aloof introduction of prostitution into the story hits you hard, because not only does it seem unlikely, but it seems unnecessary: There’s no apparent reason for Isabelle to be hooking when she seems to have a comfortable life bankrolled by her physician mother. It’s a mystery that draws you into the film and that keeps you interested even when nothing seems to be happening but sex and showering and texting.
Thanks to this strategy, the film offers the same opaque, ambiguous depth of Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” in a much more digestible form.
Like the protagonist in that film (also a discreet prostitute), Isabelle is enigmatic: Does she like hooking? Does she feel like a slut? Does she hate it? What is the money even for?
Maybe it’s all of the above at once, as Vacth’s performance suggests. The actress embodies Isabelle’s capricious, cryptic morals and motivations without the need for language, and your money is well-spent on this film if only to see it for yourself.
Whatever her motivations are, they don’t stop Isabelle. As the film progresses, her prices go up, her clientele expands and she seems to turn every kind of trick with every kind of guy. Accordingly, a solid 20 minutes of the film amount to a montage of graphic, hardcore sex scenes that are more eerie than erotic, thanks to a cold, clinical camera gaze.
When her favorite john dies while she is on top of him, roughly half-way through the film, we start to get clues to the riddle of why she’s hooking. We spend the rest of the film figuring out what Isabelle left behind on that beach: We sit with her through therapy, we start to smile again when she rediscovers what it’s like to just be young and beautiful and we start to learn what all the money was for.
But there’s no clear answer to any of our questions, and there’s no reason to believe that once the film has ended, Isabelle has renounced prostitution. Despite some loose ends not being tied, the film feels complete when the credits start to roll, almost as if the whole 90 minutes were one long, good cry.