Ozon’s last two movies received favourable notices and drew modestly impressive audience figures in the UK, perhaps due to the still-potent star power (among certain demographics) of actors like Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu and Kristin Scott Thomas. I missed 2012’s In The House, but with 2010’s Potiche Ozon made a case for himself as a frontrunner in the field of modern, mainstream-tending and sexually liberated French comedy drama. By all accounts this period piece was unusually light-hearted for the director, though its thematic concerns of gender and class were handled pretty responsibly considering its over-all breezy tone. Jeune et Jolie is generally a much more earnest work, but a similar kind of humour, somewhat gentle and drawn from closely observed family relations, is still present.
This was surprising to me – perhaps I’d been misled by the inevitable references to Buñuel’s classic Belle de Jour in the anticipatory write-ups. I found myself regarding the film rather standoffishly as a result; because the ‘French high-class hooker movie’ has by now become a cinematic cliché, irrespective of how this has come about, we as viewers are at risk of treating the subject of prostitution much more lightly. I’m not being a killjoy here – I know that Belle de Jour, the ur-text, was sharply humorous in its own way, and from Ozon I wasn’t exactly expecting the grit and cruelty of Haneke. But somewhere between the comic touches and the emotional blankness of the protagonist Isabelle, I lost my grasp on the film, and found it frustratingly noncommittal. It sidesteps the issue of what exactly prostitution is, preferring instead to explore what it isn’t.
Maybe this objection of mine is just a matter of taste. And it’s rather unfair of me to lodge a complaint even before giving a basic plot introduction, so allow me to backtrack. Isabelle is a quiet and disaffected upper-middle class teenager, introduced topless and sunbathing in a binocular-framed shot. Ozon’s male-gaze provocation is quickly upturned when it’s revealed that her younger brother is the lad behind the lenses, and he’s in the process of fetching her back to the house for dinner.
The relationship between Isabelle and her brother Victor is by some distance the most interesting element of the film. His lively curiosities about the world of late-teenage sex and dating are sympathetically received by Isabelle; they are a team. Young, inquisitive and smart, they exist in another realm entirely from the ‘adult’ society around them, and Ozon refuses to patronise them or make a fault of their inexperience. One of the film’s real strengths is its refusal to make the siblings vulnerable subjects or victims, there to be oppressed and impressed upon by society’s duplicitous sexual standards. Internet porn is briefly mentioned but not given undue prominence, the implication being that this very modern phenomenon is not the wholly corrupting factor many sensationalists claim it is. (I’m on Ozon’s side with this one.)
Without fuss, Isabelle sets about losing her virginity before her seventeenth birthday party to a German boy she cares little for. Then, after the summer is over and the family head back to the city, we jump forward to sometime in autumn (Jeune et Jolie segments its seasons) and suddenly the thin and moody seventeen-year-old is in a sophisticated suit, looking much more the age of the actor Marine Vacth herself – twenty-two perhaps? – as she blankly walks the hallway of an expensive hotel to meet a client.
The audience is denied the specifics of how she became a high-class call girl until later, and even then it’s shown only in elliptical flashbacks. This is another refreshing structural twist on the formula of the ‘transgression’ narrative – there is no incremental ‘descent’; her secretive new lifestyle is exposed in full swing, and we can only judge it as it appears.
Isabelle still plays the innocent virgin at school, and the naïve and clumsy advances of her classmate Alex are cruelly contrasted with the sad sophistication of the middle-aged businessmen that exclusively form her client base. She derives no fulfilment from either her real life or her professional one as ‘Lea’, and I found this eventually quite wearing, despite the individually successful elements of the film.
Technically there’s nothing really wrong with Jeune et Jolie; it’s the work of a cool-headed craftsman, as sophisticated and obtuse as the johns who wait for ‘Lea’ in their plush sixth-floor hotel rooms. The problem I had with the film, especially in the party sequence where Isabelle finally concedes to socialise with her peers, is that it seems to swing pendulously between realism and fantasy. It stylises and romanticises in the very Frenchest of ways, coolly, before resting back into the warmth and credibility of realist family drama.
Again, maybe it’s just a matter of taste, and I prefer my fantasy bolder and more formally experimental, as in Belle de Jour. And as a story about a youthful ‘phase’, Jeune et Jolie has its inconclusiveness in common with such recent French and Belgian realist films as Tomboy and The Kid With a Bike, yet it feels less substantial. On the ripe subject of sex and self-identity, all it seems to say with any conviction is that sexuality is not the way by which we come to know ourselves. It is, in itself, not powerful enough to soothe or shatter Isabelle’s alienation.
Words: David Hamilton-Smith