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Review: Jeune et Jolie

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For the benefit of those whose French is more ‘Allo ‘Allo! than Les Enfants du Paradis, the title of François Ozon’s latest movie translates as Young and Beautiful – and that’s precisely its starting point.

Meet Isabelle (Marine Vacth), the teenage daughter of Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas) and sister of sparky li’l peeping tom-in-the-making Victor (Fantin Ravat). With her porcelain skin, lustrous mane and lips like a pair of overinflated lilos, Isabelle’s the kind of girl who all the boys are as eager to get their paws on as they are a shiny new PS4.

Front of the queue is Félix (Lucas Prisor), a good-looking but snoozesome German she hooks up with on her family hols. Surrendering her virginity to the curly-bonced bore after a stolen evening out, Isabelle sees a vision of herself across the sand, looking back at the emotionally sterile humping. It’s one of several flourishes of deliberate artifice from writer-director Ozon which pepper the film.

Curiously, Isabelle’s own out-of-body experience puts her on the path to having lots more in-other-people’s-bodies experiences when she returns to Paris. Setting herself up as a call girl, she duly gets to work, servicing the many and varied sexual needs of the French capital’s middle-aged menfolk.

From here Jeune et Jolie shifts into an assured chronicle of a young woman exploring her awakening amatory power, and the impact this whole risky business has on those around her – from her family, to her stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot), to friends and classmates, and even her clients; most notably blue pill-popping regular Georges (Johan Leysen).

But while the story is emotionally intricate, at no point does it threaten to turn into a hard-hitting Stella Does Tricks-style account of the grimily gritty grimness of prostitution. In fact, so entirely non-judgemental is the attitude exhibited by Ozon toward his central protagonist’s hotel room exploits that this is perhaps a movie to reinforce what the curtain twitchers of England’s emerald shires have for so long suspected: that the French just LOVE knocking each other off.

They love it so much as to not want to slog through a full working week. They love it so much as to not put up a proper show against an invading foreign power. And they love it so much as to not give anywhere near enough of a stuff over all the sovereign powers being hoovered up by those barmy Brussels bureaucrats.

Er, which is really just a rather roundabout way of saying that Jeune et Jolie, like many of its director’s finest movies before it, possesses a distinctive Gallic quality; a modest yet definite sense that this story told this way could only ever make sense by virtue of its placement within the attitudes and ennui of the French bourgeoisie.

But if the trajectory of the narrative speaks of a specific country and culture, Marine Vacth’s turn as the icy, alluring Isabelle is arresting enough to demand universal approval.

Ozon reaped the benefits of putting his trust in a largely untested talent for his last outing behind the camera, the excellent In the House, when young Ernst Umhauer gave the silver-thatched Fabrice Luchini a run for his Euros and then some.

And inspired by the success of that experience, the filmmaker has unearthed himself another star-in-the-making in the shape of Vacth – with the ambiguity, intelligence and confidence she brings to her performance proving emblematic of the strongest qualities of Jeune et Jolie itself.

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