Continuing my recent dalliances with Gallic indies, here is a short review of the 2013 film Jeune & Jolie (Young & Beautiful). The story of a teenage girl who becomes a professional escort, Jeune & Jolie is the kind of movie that could have turned into a piece of exploitive, misogynistic trash. With this kind of subject matter, it takes a delicate touch -- somehow Jeune & Jolie manages to walk the tightrope between exploitation and character study, without ever tipping over the edge.
In an attempt to provide some kind of structure for my ramblings, and to avoid spoilers, I'm going to run through the major things which stuck out about this movie in the following categories.
The story: Isabelle is a 17 year old girl who is making her first moves into adult relationships. While on holiday, she has her first sexual experience with another teenager. The experience does nothing for her, and she avoids him for the rest of her trip. The film jumps forward to autumn, where Isabelle is back home and finishing high school. Unable, or unwilling, to date or socialise with her peers, but still curious about what she actually wants from a physical relationship, Isabelle finds her way into the world of internet escorts -- a forum where she can set the rules and avoid emotional entanglements.
The direction: Directed by Francois Ozon (2003's Swimming Pool), the film has a distanced, somewhat remote perspective similar to what Soderbergh attained with The Girlfriend Experience. While there is no real plot, there is a strong sense of directorial control and purpose to the way the story develops. Ozon's perspective is analogous to Hitchcock: neither consciously objective or subjective, he uses his camera to direct the viewer's attention while never revealing exactly what is significant about what he is showing.
While there are no obvious plot points, there is a vague sense of cause and effect to each scene which lends the story a weird sense of momentum and tension. Something is out of whack in this girl's world and it is up to the viewer to figure it out.
In terms of the sexual content, there is nothing erotic about the young woman's encounters. The film does not linger on the physical component of her profession, preferring to record it from a remove or cut away. Ultimately, what makes the film so intriguing is that Ozon never explains why Isabelle does what she does. Further more, he does not ruin the story by providing a tidy or moralistic climax -- there are no 'punishment' or 'redemption' plot conveniences, and no easy answers.
Narrative structure: The film takes place over the course of a year, and is split into four segments of time, taking placing during a particular season of the year. This structural device works on a couple of inter-related levels: Practically, it compresses the character's evolution into an endurable running time (a tight 93 minutes). It also adds to the film's ambiguity - there is a strange variation of the Kuleshov effect going on here, as the viewer is forced to juxtapose an earlier version of the central character, against an older, more worldly iteration without the filmmakers showing explicitly how and why the character has changed. Finally, going back to what I said about tension, these 'seasonal jumps' act in the same way that act breaks in a play do -- they act as both cliffhangers for the story, and as a breather for the viewer to acclimatise to a new scenario.
Acting: A movie like Jeune & Jolie lives and dies on the performance of its lead actress. Simply put, Marine Vacth is a revelation. Enigmatic and fragile, world weary and naive, she is a real discovery. A former model with few credits, this film was her big break, and a well-deserved one at that. Expect great things from this one.
It is rare to see a mature, nuanced take on female agency and sexuality which does not find some way to demonise or punish its protagonist for attempting to express her own sexual identity. Jeune & Jolie succeeds in avoiding that trap, while also avoiding the potential for turning Isabelle into a male fantasy of female desire.
Overall, a strong recommend.