*** (out of four)
A kneejerk response to the existence of a French drama called “Young & Beautiful,” about a 17-year-old girl confronting her newfound attractiveness, would be, “Boo freaking hoo. You know what the opposite of young and beautiful is?”
Writer-director Francois Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” last year’s excellent “In the House”) understands this. His movie neither laments the condition of having admirers nor glorifies it. (Although inattention to sexism is one of several ways in which “Young & Beautiful” seems to miss the big picture.)
On the one hand, it seems naïve and shocking when Isabelle (Marine Vacth), not far removed from her virginity, becomes a prostitute—she seems to have no awareness of the hazards. Yet Ozon embraces the real-life existence of complicated motives, particularly when it comes to sexuality and the mystery of the self and others.
It’s important that Vacth, a striking blend of Mischa Barton and Julia Roberts who just turned 24, looks young and very capably anchors a film in which everyone is either looking forward or looking back—but always at her. “Young & Beautiful” lacks the haunting detachment of “The Girlfriend Experience” or the deep heartbreak and coming-of-age transformation of last year’s searing “Blue is the Warmest Color.” And Ozon, whose ending is both appropriate and too easy, vaguely suggests reasons for Isabelle’s behavior worth exploring further.
In a non-pervy way the film does, however, tap into something valid and potentially disturbing about sexual power and opportunity, with a young beauty seen as either dynamite or a flame. “Young & Beautiful” has no slut- shaming or particular answers. It merely accepts that there are a wide spectrum of mistakes made during youth, and time does no favors.
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