With his erotic thrillers Criminal Lovers and Swimming Pool, writer-director François Ozon is no stranger to titillating tales of sexual exploration. But the French provocateur’s latest, Young & Beautiful, never amounts to anything more than its title’s shallow descriptors.
Like many teens, Isabelle (Marine Vacth) loses her virginity on summer vacation. After the unremarkable experience, she begins to lead a secret life as a call girl, though it’s never clear why: she appears disinterested in sex and the ever expanding envelope of Euros she hides in her closet. When a date with a client goes south and the police become involved, Isabelle’s bourgeois mother (Géraldine Pailhas) and stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) are clued into her unorthodox after-school activity.
While Ozon does dodge some of the typical pitfalls of sexy coming-of-age stories, the director seems just as tired with the subject at hand as his listless protagonist. Weaving neither an erotic nor sexually explicit story, he instead opts for a series of melodramatic, heavy-handed moments: a sentimental john wistfully comments on Isabelle’s “melancholic” eyes; the girls’ classmates debate the meaning of romantic love – conventional reigns over kink.
Vacth gamely writhes around nude on men (her character notably never orgasms), but the performance never resonates beyond this display of flesh. In leaving the lead’s motivations unknown, Ozon’s film falls into the trappings of the “unknowable woman” trope: Isabelle is merely some mysterious creature, not a human being with wants and desires. It’s not beguiling, just lazy.