Review: 'Jeune & Jolie' proclaims once a whore always a whore

Francois Ozon's latest isn't as titillating as it wants to be

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<p>Marine Vacth in Francois Ozon's &quot;Jeune &amp;&nbsp;Jolie.&quot;</p>

Marine Vacth in Francois Ozon's "Jeune & Jolie."

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CANNES - Director Francois Ozon has made a career of exploring sexuality and sexual awakenings on the big screen, but his latest, "Jeune & Jolie" (Young and Beautiful), sadly falls short of his previous efforts.

Divided thematically by season, we first meet the impossibly young and beautiful Isabelle (Marine Vacth) as she lays down to sunbathe on a secluded beach. As she pulls off her topthe camera pulls back and we discover a boy watching her from the distance with goggles.  The image cuts to this boy standing over Isabelle as he slowly lets the shadow of his hand roll over her exposed breast. She wakes up and grabs a blanket covering herself annoyed she's been snuck up on. This boy is her brother Victor (a fine Fantin Ravat) who we later find out clearly idolizes his sister. Victor's teenage fascination becomes even more evident when he sneaks throughout their family's summer home and spies on Isabelle pleasuring herself in her bedroom. Strikingly, the focus soon turns solely to Isabelle POV and her holiday fling with studly German vacationer Felix (Laurent Belbecque). The young man takes her virginity on the same beach in a scene which finds Isabelle having an out of body experience watching herself with Felix. Afterward, Isabelle seems to be aloof and unmoved by the seminal event. The next day she gives Felix the cold shoulder in front of her family and as Felix notes to her brother, "Your sister is weird." 

As "Autumn" is introduced Isabelle rises from a Paris Metro station dressed significantly older than her 17-years and makes her way into a nondescript Hotel. We soon discover she's meeting a man to prostitute herself for the first time. The customer (Johan Leysen) is considerably older than she expected (he could be her grandfather), but she goes through with it anyway and takes her money. Thus begins a slew of paid encounters with men who are almost all seemingly her step father's age or much older.  She coordinates these hookups online under a pseudonym while her relatively upscale family and school friends remains oblivious to how she's actually spending her afternoons. As the jobs continue, the johns are increasingly despicable with one particular oaf reminding Isabelle "once a whore always a whore."  Ozon holds on that particular moment long enough to make you wonder where he plans on taking his young heroine. At the same time he's kept the audience in limbo regarding Isabelles' true motivations which makes the scenario dramatically compelling to a point.  That break occurs when Leysen's character passes away in the middle of a follow up tryst. And that's when the cracks begin to appear in Ozon's scenario.

The customer's death brings the police into the picture who discover Isabelle via the hotel's security camera and inform her mother and stepfather (Geraldine Pailhas and Frédéric Pierrot).  The picture then quickly transitions to a much less interesting family melodrama. As you'd expect, Mom just can't understand what could compel Isabelle to do such a thing and the audience can't quite either. Does she feel empowered selling her body for money? Is she addicted to exploring her sexuality and the degradation of being a prostitute? The family forces Isabelle to see a psychiatrist, but there are no easy answers.  In fact, the film's second and third act can't even provide more questions questions about her choices. Ozon may not really have an answer at all unless a recurring theme that Isabelle can't find love with a boy her own age (the aforementioned Felix or a family friendly schoolmate played by Laurent Delbecque) and is just destined to be loveless.  The director even tries to work in comedic moments to lighten the mood (cue the "what's the big deal?" reaction from her step father or her mother's best friend who insists on driving Isabelle home instead of her philandering husband), but it all just ends up diminishing the dramatic momentum created earlier in the picture. Eventually Ozon has to wrap things up and calls on none other than cinematic legend Charlotte Rampling to step in as the dead john's wife to give Isabelle and the film some closure.

Vacth, who is a good six years older than her character, is best known for her modeling work but she displays considerable acting talent even if Ozon doesn't seem to provide her with enough motivation to make Isabelle interesting enough for viewers to care about her journey. She does show hints of projecting a seductive charisma on screen and it wouldn't be surprising to see her land a studio picture after this showcase performance.

A few hours after the film, an industry colleague noted "Men should never make films about prostitutes. It never turns out well." There may be notable exceptions to that rule, but in this case Ozon proves him right as he's bit off more than he can satisfactorily chew.  As for it's acquisition prospects, "Jeune & Jolie" should find minor art house distribution in the U.S. based on the subject mater alone.

On a more positive note, the film is assisted by some truly gorgeous lensing by cinematographer Pascal Marti.

For more reactions from this year's Cannes Film Festival follow @HitFixGregory.

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Gregory Ellwood
Editor-in-Chief, Co-Founder
With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios and has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times. A co-founder of HitFix, Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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