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Young and Beautiful

Isabelle is certainly beautiful, by the standard definitions, with her long neck, pouty lips and long flowing hair, like a computer-generated version of the young Nastassja Kinski with the quirky stuff sanded away. And she is young, celebrating her 17th birthday near the beginning of the film. Fortunately Marine Vacth, the actress playing her, was 22 when the film was made, which at least in France is enough to mollify any complaints about Francois Ozon’s new film about her sexual explorations and financial exploitation thereof.

When we first see her she is on summer vacation with her family. A German boy named Felix has been paying attention to her, and one night she sneaks out to be with him. By which, of course, I mean—well, you know what I mean. Though it’s her first time the event seems of only moderate interest to her, and when the family leaves for home a few days later she doesn’t even look at Felix when they pass him on the road.

Cut to the fall (the film is arranged by seasons) and Isabelle, dressed in her mother’s best clothes, is meeting a man old enough to be her grandfather at a hotel. Lying about her age, she has taken to internet prostitution, a most lucrative sideline for a high school student.

The fascination of French filmmakers with the oldest profession is well known, as is their penchant for depicting it as a dull commercial transaction. But when Luis Bunuel did that nearly 50 years ago in Belle du Jour, he was making a subversive point. So was Godard in Two or Three Things I Know About Her.

Ozon is one of the most respected and commercially successful of modern French auteurs, so you wouldn’t expect him to knock out a sexploitation movie. And despite the graphic nature of the hotel encounters here, Young and Beautiful doesn’t have a grindhouse tone. (Opening his film with a shot of Isabelle in a teeny bikini being observed through a pair of binoculars seems to be a way to defuse such criticisms, as if to say, “No no no, this is a statement about voyeurism, not an instance of it.”)

But Isabella’s aloofness leaves too much open to interpretation. Are we to take her as a teenager testing her limits in the face of a liberal upbringing? Ozon refuses to psychoanalyze her. Teenagers are not static characters: they fascinate us because they are in such a state of flux. Compared to the growing young women who inhabit films like last years Blue is the Warmest Color, Isabella is initially fascinating but ultimately frustrating; she (and Ozon) keeps her cards so close to her chest that we lose interest in her before the film concludes.

Opens Friday at the North Park Theatre.

Watch the trailer for Young and Beautiful

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