Following on from Swimming Pool, 8 Women, Potiche, and In the House, the “Jeune & Jolie” (Young & Beautiful) Isabelle is the new chapter in François Ozon’s oeuvre on the theme of women.
This latest chapter tells the story of seventeen year old Isabelle’s (Marine Vacht’s) sexual awakening and descent into prostitution across four seasons.
Almost as if the stars have aligned with Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac following on the heels of Ozon’s Jeune & Jolie, whilst it is perhaps nothing more than a coincidence it is one that is a point of interest. Both films find their respective filmmakers dealing with a sexualised leading lady, though Ozon unlike Von Trier stays within the realm of youth, and therein refrains from mapping out her sexual evolution.
Whilst Ozon’s decision to refrain from drifting into Isabelle’s mature years is a product of the narrative’s time restriction – restricted to a year in Isabelle’s life, it also remains true to his intentions of moving away from working with an older cast to return to the youth of his early films.
Invariably the story of a seventeen year old prostitute/call girl, the film centres itself on the “Jeune & Jolie” woman, but also sees a meeting with maturity. Ozon positions his youthful protagonist in a world surrounded by age – her matriarch mother, a wife of a John played by Charlotte Rampling and the older Johns she whores herself out to. Showing her in school, at after school parties around her peers, and sharing a close relationship with her younger brother, Isabelle has one foot in the adolescent world and another in the sexualised world of adulthood.
Our knowledge of her experience casts her as an alien in her adolescent world, and this divide is one that echoes throughout the film. A device of narrative power, the divisive or Jekyll and Hyde archetype, the exploration of the opposing shades of identity or simply how we perceive a person is the film’s narrative draw.
Jeune & Jolie is likely to frustrate and impress in equal measure, the audience a searing sold out football stadium pulling in two different directions – for and against Ozon’s hesitancy.
The director is seemingly disinterested in having a discussion that touches upon the finer points of exposition, leaving us to surmise what propels the character into her sexualised existence. Is it the unsatisfying initial experience or is it the curiosity that appeals to her sexual side? It could be either or both. Is it just youthful experience – pushing at the boundaries? Is it a character struggling to balance emotion with the physicality?
For all his disinterest in conversation the film provokes questions, and from varying points of view an answer may present itself, though it invariably teases us with the possibility that the answer is not quite so definite.
Dividing the film across the seasons and by beginning in the summer on the sun bathed coast, the only place left is the overcast urban which becomes the setting for Isabelle’s descent into underage prostitution. Similar to a play consisting of a series of acts, Jeune & Jolie remains like the singularity of the play – a single chapter comprised of multiple acts in this brief but important interlude of her life.
The important question asked is whether one can change, or are we forced into the identity our adolescent and youthful years shapes for us, and just how much is our behaviour defined by periods of our life?
Marine Vacht just two years off her onscreen debut in My Piece of the Pie delivers a compelling performance that marks her as an actress to watch with eager anticipation. Ozon wisely surrounds her by a fine supporting cast, but her skill is in a counter balance – coldness and warmth with a steely resignation which is offset with a victimised tragic stare. She is both the steely woman and warm hearted girl; the heroine and the cruel woman.
Vacht plays Isabelle with a nuance that compels our curiosity complimented by Ozon’s reluctance to explain his leading lady’s every motivation. He limits the therapy scenes to a brief and ambiguous two scenes that allows us to only keep pace with her, but to not psychoanalyse her with any confidence. We are invited to be voyeurs, to peek into Isabelle’s private and personal world, but that is where Ozon cuts us off and closes the door, leaving us instead to our imaginations and opinions to inform our understanding of Isabelle.
As the credits roll, Jeune & Jolie may be most fittingly viewed as a journey during which time she comes to terms with her identity. The film ends on either a question or a realisation, but regardless Jeune & Jolie is a slow unravelling story of the angst of living and the angst of identity that lurks in shadowy complexity. Ozon admits this was the world he was looking to create for his “Jeune & Jolie” Isabelle, but his latest film shows his habitual lightness of touch, but one that nonetheless offers food for thought, and character studies that cut deeper than the seemingly light gaze of his camera and nib of his pen (or rather fingertips upon the keys of the keyboard).
Jeune & Jolie review by Paul Risker.
Jeune & Jolie is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD