François Ozon, the former enfant terrible of French Cinema, returns after his career best In the House with a rather sedate, even if it is occasionally mildly provocative, character study into the sexual awakening of a seventeen year-old girl.
Isabelle, the girl in question, is played by Marine Vacth, an actress for who this will no doubt be a breakout performance. Vacth has the kind of movie star charisma that can hold the camera and keep an audience spellbound. And Ozon takes every opportunity to leave the camera lingering on Vacth, allowing her to convey her character’s subtle but complex emotions through minor changes in her expression.
Isabelle is first seen on a beach, through a pair of binoculars held by her younger brother, as she sunbathes topless. The tropes which Ozon taps into with this scene and many other key moments in this story of an experimental young girl who turns to prostitution, for the experience more than anything else, are all very familiar and images quickly form in one’s mind from films such as Belle de Jour or Lolita. Like those films though glimpses of Isabelle’s naked body are not used simply to titillate. Ozon has some more high-minded ideas here, even if they are a little simplistically conveyed.
A later scene which features Isabelle studying Rimbauds’s ‘No one’s serious at Seventeen’ even brings to mind Kenneth Lonergan’s modern masterpiece Margaret, but Ozon’s writing here is far from the rich subtlety with which Lonergan handled similar material. The Rimbaud scene in Jeune & Jolie is a microcosm of the wider issues in the film, which do not spoil an otherwise engaging story but they certainly weaken the telling and make for a far more lightweight experience.
With this scene, and others, Ozon is far too explicit in the way in which he makes clear what the film is about, beyond the provocative concept of a teenager turning to prostitution. In telling a heightened version of the teenage experience Ozon is working in an interesting area but when Isabelle sees a reflected version of herself, standing watching her as she loses her virginity early on in the film it is clear that Ozon is not going to let us slowly understand her experiences through what we see. He is simply going to tell us explicitly and repeatedly.
It is particularly noticeable therefore when there are some more subtle ideas conveyed, such as the way in which Isabelle quickly begins to ritualise her experiences with clients, her repetitive behaviour and secret lifestyle playing very much like someone slowly becoming consumed by an addiction. These more nuanced moments are few and far between though.
Despite issues with thematic concerns being so far in the foreground Jeune & Jolie is nonetheless an engaging character piece, with the excellent central performance of Vacth and some handsome and often understated cinematography from Pascal Marti being the main highlights.