Despite controversy surrounding both François Ozon’s outlandish claims that ‘prostitution is a fantasy for many women’, and his oblique and ambivalent portrayal of teen prostitution; Jeune et Jolie is not a film about prostitution.
Instead it’s a delicate coming of age story revolving around the confused and precocious Isabelle. Fatherless, she pursues replacement love in all the wrong places.
Following a disappointing first sexual encounter with a boy she meets on holiday, Isabelle slips with uncomfortable ease into the life of a part-time, up-market prostitute. The first encounter we see is with Georges, with whom she gradually forms a tender yet complicated sexual relationship. This brings to the fore the troublesome void left by her absent father, a metaphor that’s sporadically abrasive throughout the film. The revealing of Isabelle’s double life to her mother, surprisingly early in the film, brings about a multi-faceted and probing storyline. It delves into the effects of her father’s absence on not just Isabelle, but consequently on the whole family.
Ozon splits the film into four key segments, each attributed a season, and segregated with a deftly handled music interlude to the sound of recurring Ozon muse Françoise Hardy. In the wrong hands these, and various other conspicuously repetitive motifs throughout the film, could have become overwhelmingly patronising. The most apparent instance of such borderline condescension comes with a straight to-camera recital of teen prodigy Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, ‘No One’s Serious At Seventeen’.
With the rest of the film being understated, subtle, and astutely embodying the same taciturnity as Marine Vacth’s reticent Isabelle, these occasions of stressed intertextuality problematically linger in the palette upon exiting the cinema. One has to wonder whether this was an error in judgement, or deliberate audience alienation.
New Wave icon Jean Luc Godard used similarly alienating effects on his audience to great effect in his 1962 film about prostitution Vivre Sa Vie. Inter-titles interrupted the narrative, music sequences accented particularly revealing lyrics, and an ambivalent protagonist forced the audience to work to understand the character’s emotions. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is Ozon’s choice to subtitle Hardy’s ‘on the nose’ lyrics, something Godard also chose to do, insisting that their audience take note of their musical decisions.
Perhaps Ozon, like Godard, is aware of his cumbersome handling of these intertextual references, but why interrupt what would be an otherwise elegant effort?
Its not until one looks further into both Hardy and Rimbaud’s biographies that we might understand better Ozon’s opaque use of their work in an otherwise unobtrusive narrative. Both Hardy and Rimbaud came to prominence in their teens, became disillusioned with their professional lives, and throughout their childhoods felt a void left by an absent father figure.
The famously shy Hardy seems to be the inspiration for Ozon’s Isabelle, Marine Vacth even bears a striking resemblance to a Hardy that sang the songs used in the film. In Rimbaud we can find yet more references to Ozon’s disillusioned teen. Rimbaud’s father ‘Georges’ was predominantly absent on military postings, and upon the birth of Rimbaud’s sister ‘Isabelle’, never again returned home. With this evident adoption of aspects from their lives, and an understanding of their work, the reasoning behind Ozon’s need to discernibly tip his hat to both artists becomes more apparent.
Ozon is brazen and conspicuous in his use of music and poetry in the film, but is an apparent purposefulness in this regard enough to warrant what feels like a dumbed down explanation of his intended allegory. The music interludes are easily forgivable in this regard due to their breathtaking beauty and nostalgic splendour alone. However, it might take a particularly keen Rimbaud enthusiast or inquisitive film buff to comprehend and forgive the painfully prominent poetry recital.
Despite what is arguably the film’s only setback, one quickly becomes swept away in a trance with the enigmatic Isabelle. Vacth’s understated performance is a testament to both her natural ability, and Ozon’s shrewd decision to withhold Isabelle’s psychological motive’s from his inexperienced actor. Jeune et Jolie resists predictability and proves to be fresh, subtle and intelligent.
Jeune et Jolie (2013), directed by François Ozon, is released in UK cinemas by Lionsgate, Certificate 18.