Young & Beautiful: Nice headboard!
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Young & Beautiful (Jeune et Jolie) ***

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Instead of surrealist spinnings along the lines of Luis Buñuel’s Belle du Jour, spend the four seasons in a suite at the Four Seasons with a high-school harlot in Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful.

The spiky shadow of a sinuous hand that just let loose a pair of binoculars makes a slow, Calgarian squirm up a naked, sunbaked torso. In Hollywood you’d rightly expect the claw to be attached to something frightful, but this is France (they’re way ahead out there) and the hovering wing belongs to none other than the bod’s voyeuristic younger brother. It’s by far the most fervid and fully developed relationship in a picture otherwise preoccupied with restrained emotion.

Parisian provocateur Ozon (Swimming Pool, Time to Leave) again fixes his clinician’s gaze on the business of lust to further explore his pet preoccupations of identity and sexuality among teenage adolescents. In Isabelle’s (Marine Vacth) case, sexuality is allied with neither money nor feelings. Nor is the privileged schoolkid using it as an excuse to work her way through the Sorbonne. While most 17-year-olds rely on booze or narcotics as a means of self-destructive dissent, our comely heroine’s drug of choice is prostitution.

Isabelle views the loss of her virginity as an out-of-body experience. No sooner is the deed done than there’s a quick cut to her long legs pounding the plush carpeting of a five-star hotel midway to her “date.” We watch as she works several Johns — until her career comes screeching to a halt when one of them dies in mid-rapture.

Nothing is overstated, not even the standard-issue detached cop who lectures her on the physical dangers of the job without ever breaching the topic of STDs. When confronted with the truth, her mother and stepfather, initially quick to chalk up Isabelle’s multitude of daily showers as a “girl thing,” handle the news in as sensible a manner as you’re likely to find in a contemporary melodrama.

Her first starring role calls for Vacth to appear in practically every shot. Even though Isabelle’s motivation is never made clear, Vacth’s subtle inflections indicate there’s a brain at work behind the seductive mask. Credit also goes to cinematographer Pascal Marti for his sensational job of mirroring Ozon mentor Douglas Sirk’s highly-reflective surfaces.

It’s a case of the ends justifying the means. Isabelle’s last “trick” comes as an unexpected doozy, leaving her to question the merits of returning to a life as moony schoolgirl. Why Ozon chose as his framework something as rudimentary as the four seasons is anybody’s guess. The real puzzle is why each quarter is underscored with sappy pop tunes that add a thin patina of irony to an otherwise even-handed pursuit.

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