François Ozon’s second film to debut in Competition, Jeune et Jolie, sees the prolific auteur once again tackle themes of sexual promiscuity in a film that could be held as a spiritual sequel to 2003’s Swimming Pool. Both depict female protagonists coming to terms with sex in a different light than expected, with the result reshaping their personality and sensibilities. But Jeune et Jolie is more straight-forward than Swimming Pool’s infamous ambiguity, balancing neatly between sensitive drama and playful humor. The film wouldn’t work without the wonderful lead performance by model-actress Marina Vacth, her subtle intricacy and beguiling expressions moving beyond the archetypical “prostitute narrative.”
Broken into four seasons, the film opens in the summer and ends in the spring, casting allusions to the “deflowering” and eventual regrowth of a 17-year-old girl. In the summer, Isabelle (Vacth) is the embodiment of both the season and the film’s title; her youth and beauty joining the carefree, halcyon days of warmth, sunshine, and flings with handsome suitors. To that end, we see Isabelle lose her virginity on a beach—a scene where Ozon literalizes the out-of-body and has Isabelle watch herself “mature”—but the act is one-sided and passionless, and Isabelle walks away from the experience with separation and relative apathy. When she returns from her vacation villa to Paris for school in September, Isabelle has since become a prostitute; seeing clients, maintaining an online profile, and socking the money away for no explicit venture.
It’s okay that we don’t know why Isabelle doesn’t spend the money she makes. The spin here is that Isabelle’s prostitution is not borne from an urgent financial situation or other external forces, which lets Ozon direct Vacth around unusual circumstance with complex emotions. Finding a regular client she appreciates (instead of removed indifference), it seems Isabelle is enjoying the work the more she pursues it; indeed, when her secret is finally revealed to her family and to the police, Isabelle reminisces fondly with the therapist who sees her. One of the film’s most poignant jokes occurs here, too: when told how much Isabelle has to pay for her one-on-one sessions, she quips: “that’s it?” We’re reminded that a professional doctor charges a fraction of what Isabelle does, Ozon leaving us with a brilliant touch of social commentary. It’s just one of the many examples that keep Jeune et Jolie above other films with similar topics (the lagging 2011 Elles comes to mind; as does Sleeping Beauty).
Vacth’s breakout performance demands we see more of her, and Isabelle’s unstoppable flirtation with danger is the source of continued inspiration for France’s former enfant terrible. And when the film’s final chapter unspools—this time, it’s the spring—with a uniquely inspired cameo that once again echoes Ozon’s larger filmography, we know that Jeune et Jolie has managed its lofty goal of keeping things fresh despite the not uncommon themes and topics.