There are no prosthetic vaginas in Young and Beautiful, French director François Ozon’s meditation on the unholy trinity of sex, youth, and power. Unlike Blue is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac, it likely won’t face accusations of pornography, but of the three erotic bildungsromans, Ozon’s story of Isabelle, a teen girl who has sex for money she doesn’t need, is the most morally challenging. Not because the film suggests anything Isabelle does is amoral, but because she leaves her parents and the police stumped, and at a loss for why she’s doing it, their reasons for why she shouldn’t lose weight.
Ozon is prolific. The 45 year old has made 16 films in the past 17 years, and Young and Beautiful isn’t the first where teens and adults collide in a darkly sexual universe: seeSwimming Pool or Dans La Maison. For his latest, Ozon found model-turned-actress Marine Vacth to play Isabelle. In the film, her blue-eyed gaze unsettles. She betrays nothing looking her customers-cum-lovers directly in the eye. The way she guards her interiority, it’s hard to think of what she’s doing as selling herself. “I think she discovers a sense of power through the different encounters with those men,” suggests Vacth in her native French.
Before I met Vacth in the hotel room in Toronto last Fall, I spotted her smoking outside. She had on a black leather bomber and looked nearly regal. Later we met upstairs in a suite not unlike the ones Isabelle spends much of the film in, with the white-haired and balding businessmen she solicits online. In the film, she tells them she’s a student, the implied motivation for what she’s doing is to pay tuition, but the wads of cash stay untouched in her closet. When her mother finds out what’s going on, she begs her daughter for a reason why. I kept asking Vacth the same thing. “I don’t think she knows exactly why she’s doing,” she says of Isabelle, adding that to play the part “it wasn’t necessary for me to imagine something specific.”
Isabelle’s youth and beauty, juxtaposed against wrinkled faces, suggests maybe she does it because she can. “Beauty makes it easier,” agrees Vacth. The film invites a meditation on the relationship between interiority and exteriority. Isabelle’s actions pivot on this dialectic. She hocks her good looks while she keeps her internal motives guarded, but the self is not divorced from the body—in many ways, it’s determined by it and by how others see it. “I think it’s more in the look of others that we realize those things,” suggests Vacth. The first time we see Isabelle, it’s through the eyes of her younger brother watching her sunbathe—his gaze curious, innocent, and pervy all at the same time. “She was born in the body she has. She’s not living through her body or the beauty imposed on her through the way others look at her.”
In the film’s slow methodical scenes—Isabelle changing into grown-up clothes for a rendez-vous, Isabelle looking out the window on the metro—Vacth is given quite a bit of room to interpret the role in how she embodies it. She cautions me, though, against drawing any grand conclusions. “It’s still a story, a story that came from François Ozon. I don’t think it represents the sexuality in young women today.” For me, Isabelle wasn’t just a middle-aged man’s fantasy or second-wave feminism’s archetypal empowered whore. She was deeply relatable in her disdain for idiots and a bourgeois conception of love she deemed idiotic.