I wanted to like Young & Beautiful, I really did. There are segments of the film that work very well. Plus François Ozon is a director who knows how to explore themes of desire in ways that other directors cannot. However, this time around his film is missing something. It lacks the motivation needed to make both the characters and overall plot engaging.
In Young & Beautiful we follow seventeen year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) as she embarks on a year-long sexual awakening. After losing her virginity on summer vacation, and being disappointed by the experience, Isabelle decides that she is going to start working as a prostitute. What prompts this decision is never quite clear. Is it a result of daddy issues? Is her mother giving her too much freedom? Or is it merely curiosity? The only thing that is certain is that it takes a life changing event with one of her clients for Isabelle to grasp the ramifications of her double-life.
By not providing any real sense of motivation, Ozon creates a film in which it is hard to get behind any of its characters. I could not help but feel increasingly detached from Isabelle as the film went on. Although the film raises several interesting questions regarding sexuality, especially when examining prostitution versus adultery, it does not have anything more to say other than “it is what it is.”
This logic might have worked better had the film not attached itself to the sex trade. Despite the fact that the film tries not to romanticize prostitution, by stating that the money was never important, Isabelle does not really experience any truly negative aspects outside of one significant moment. Although she never spends a dime of what she earns, the business aspect is the only way she can simplify her actions in her mind. The problem with this is that by all accounts Isabelle could have her sexual awaking with anyone. Every single character in the film talks about how beautiful she is. So it is doubtful she would have trouble seducing men of all ages. The inclusion of the prostitution arc adds both a social and philosophical layer to the film which Ozon seems to have no interest in addressing.
Sure an argument can be made that her journey is about self-exploration and personal power, but we never really get a true sense of this. Outside of one great scene involving Charlotte Rampling, the wife of one of her clients, the film skirts every opportunity to dig deeper on any topic it presents. Like its central character, Young & Beautiful may be pretty to look at on the surface, but its hollowness becomes evident when you observe it a little closer.