Review first published by EyeforFilm
François Ozon’s Jeune & Jolie opens with a young woman removing her bikini top before stretching her lithe limbs over a beach towel. This is the actress Marine Vacth, living up to her forename by introducing her character Isabelle to us as a resplendent goddess born of the sea – recalling Ursula Andress’ grand entrance in Dr No, or Aphrodite herself rising from the foam.
If the image is an erotic spectacle, it is problematised twice over. For we shall soon realise that, as a virgin girl on the eve of turning 17, Isabelle is a rather unsuitable object of titillation – and even before that, her unwitting striptease has been framed by the twin circles of a pair of binoculars that position us as leering, furtive voyeurs. Even as she lies prone on the towel, we see the shadow of a hand pass across her back, in a predatory piece of chiaroscuro as old as Nosferatu (1922), and as familiar as any slasher. Here, Isabelle’s sexuality comes wrapped in (external) menace, and focalised by a (male) gaze.
In fact, the user of the binoculars, and the one whose shadow has passed over Isabelle, is no creepy adult stranger but her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) – yet the events that unfold over the course of the next four seasons (each with its own intertitle and theme song) still keep raising questions about where, when it comes to teen sexuality, adolescent experimentation, playing out and wildness end, and exploitation and empowerment begin. For not long after Isabelle has allowed a young German tourist to take her virginity, she is back with her bourgeois family – mother Sylvie (Géraldine Palhas), stepfather Patrick (Frédéric Pierrot) and Victor – in Paris, still attending high school while also secretly selling her body to an adult clientèle which contacts her online.
“Beautiful eyes,” declares the much older Georges (Johan Leysen) of his young lover-for-hire, singling out their “melancholy”. He is not wrong – Vacth embodies this role with a saddened aloofness, and expertly carries the weight of every scene. Yet the psychological intangibility that is matched to her bare physicality – the absence, if you like, that accompanies her corporeal presence – is also ultimately part of the film’s problem. For as Isabelle lives through sex (let’s not say love) and death, as she interacts with johns, family, police, therapists, fellow pupils – and even with an older version of herself, right down to the melancholic eyes (Charlotte Rampling) – her own inscrutability ultimately frustrates and annoys.
Jeune & Jolie keeps holding out a promise of insight into its young protagonist’s mentality and makeup, but ends up merely observing her from a cool distance, as if through the binoculars from the opening scene. It is a strategy that is commendable for its refusal to pass comment or judgment upon the self-whoring heroine – but it also risks reducing the film’s message to a shruggingly banal “Aren’t women mysterious creatures?” Isabelle may lie open, exposed and available to all comers, but no viewer is really getting inside her.