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Cannes Review: ‘Young & Beautiful’ Supplies Sex and Nudity, but Where’s the Soul?

Francois Ozon’s story of a teenage prostitute asks an audience to check its morality at the door

A young and beautiful woman has untold amounts of power over men, and most women don’t realize it until we’re long past it. French director Francois Ozon’s “Jeune & Jolie” (“Young & Beautiful”), which is part of the main competition at Cannes, is about a teenage girl who goes from virgin to prostitute in two seasons. 

In the summer, she loses her virginity to a German tourist at the beach. It’s a miserable experience, teaching her what men want and how little what a woman wants has anything to do with it. The sex wasn’t about her pleasure, but about his.

By fall, she’s built up a successful business as a young prostitute in Paris, lying about her age and servicing a mostly older clientele.

Getty ImagesWe’re left to pick up the pieces and wonder what went wrong. But writer-director Ozon, best known in the U.S. for “Swimming Pool” with Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier, isn’t going to make that easy. His character of Lea (played by Marine Vacth, at left with Ozon) isn’t punished for her wicked ways, as one might expect. She isn’t drugged up on heroin and left to die in a ditch. She isn’t beaten to a pulp by an angry john. She doesn’t get pregnant. She just makes a lot of money and enjoys the power and control the job affords her.

By the end of the film – long after her mother has found out, long after she’s been lectured about the dangers of prostitution – Lea is still drawn to it, like a bad addiction. She likes it – that’s the dirty secret. 

“Jeune & Jolie” doesn’t dress itself up as a tragedy. It isn’t soft-core porn masked to look like a film that will right the wrongs of society, and it doesn’t tell a story in which Lea will be appropriately punished and transformed. What she wants for herself isn’t what others imagine. She doesn’t want love, nor does she see being a whore as particularly bad.

Though Lea does undergo something of an emotional shift when she develops feelings, sort of, for one of her elderly clients, we never see who she really is. Ozon has written her as a moving symbol for something – but in the end, she doesn’t feel real enough for him to have bothered.  This is one of the dangers of trying to tell the story of the inner world of a 17-year-old girl.

Still, “Jeune & Jolie” is a beautifully made film, and Vacth is a traditional French beauty in a long tradition of them. There are many films like this one that focus on a very young, very beautiful young actress. (This isn’t the first time that Ozon, known to never shy away from onscreen sexuality, has made one.) The film delivers what it promises: plenty of nudity and sex, however soulless it might ultimately be.

And if we pin Lea down to our own standards of morality, we might miss the character Ozon has given us. But are we brave enough to confront that character? Is she a sociopath? What could have produced such a person? Ozon doesn’t answer any of those questions. He leaves us alone with our thoughts, our longings, our secret desires, and our untold truths – alone to figure it out for ourselves.

Sasha Stone is the editor of AwardsDaily.com. She will be contributing to TheWrap’s coverage of the Cannes Film Festival.

For full Cannes coverage, check the Cannes Report column.