From director Francois Ozon, Young & Beautiful is an emotionally stark tale of sexual awakening and sometimes reckless empowerment that marks the arrival of a soon to be iconic ingénue that commands the screen at every single moment.
Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is on summer vacation in the south of France with her family when she takes up a relationship with Felix, a young German tourist. He’s not her equal in any way shape or form. She gives up her virginity to him, only to cast him aside days later. While back in Paris, she sets up a website to accept appointments from johns that she will meet for sex in chic hotel rooms. She goes about her business like a pure professional, however this doesn’t mean she’s immune to the effects of the sexual whims of the men that employ her. Only with one regular client does she allow herself to experience any genuine pleasure. Eventually, the unthinkable happens and the real world consequences of her decisions come crashing into her everyday life.
It’s all very French and very self-indulgent but that’s honestly kind of the point, as Young & Beautiful is a stunning exploration of the hubris of youth and burgeoning sexuality. It’s meant to have its fair share of raw and vapid moments as Isabelle struggles to find her personal and sexual identity.
Ozon assembles a series of exhilarating highs and questionable lows in this young woman’s life with such pristine care. Isabelle can be seen both as a sexual sociopath, taking what she deems appropriate from the world around her, and as a wonderfully flawed and sometimes sympathetic figure. The film never wants us to be titillated or even horrified. It just wants her life lessons to unfold as coldly and as honestly as they possibly can. It’s a nice idea that in theory has been tried in films before, but it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if not for a star making performance from a first time leading lady.
While this is only her fourth on screen credit, Vacth delivers a powerful attention grabbing performance. She owns the audience’s attention at every turn, not only through her smoldering beauty and sexuality, but in how she navigates these situations, embracing Ozon’s calculating nature with an effectively cutting, steely gaze. As much as we’re aroused by her, we are also a little afraid of her and for her. When her experiences ultimately break her, in a scene that she shares with the wonderful Charlotte Rampling, Ozon and Vacth nail the film’s ultimate points about burgeoning sexuality perfectly. The balance of the ensemble does some fine work, but it all truly comes back to Vacth who meets the challenge of carrying the material with a remarkably effortless ease.
It’s not going to be a film that will work for everyone, especially those who can’t get behind Ozon’s balance of the opulent and the grounded at the same time, but Young & Beautiful unfurls a compelling yet stridently logical tapestry that’s hard to look away from. It’s eerily relatable even if people don’t want to admit it to themselves, and every scene has something to take away from it with absolutely no filler.