Leave it to the French to give a movie like this such a classy title. Young & Beautiful is an accurate description of its protagonist, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), but the American remake would probably just be called Teenage Hooker. First seen impassively losing her virginity to a guy she doesn’t care about during summer vacation, 17-year-old Isabelle soon transforms herself into a high-end prostitute, creating a website to handle her business and meeting johns in expensive hotel rooms, where she charges them 300 euros. Not that she particularly needs the money—she still lives at home with her mother (Géraldine Pailhas) and stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot), after all, and the family is clearly quite well off. Nor does she appear to have any obvious emotional reason for embarking on this path. The movie doesn’t even show her decision to start hooking, abruptly jumping from her first sexual experience in summer to a vocation-in-progress that fall. It’s just something that she does.
When Luis Buñuel made the classic adult version of this story, Belle De Jour, he similarly left the woman’s motives unknown, though they were easier to intuit thanks to the tepid personality of her husband. François Ozon (In The House, Swimming Pool, 8 Women) is even more willing to acknowledge that people are fundamentally mysterious, predicating almost the entire film on the lead character’s inscrutability. Though Isabelle is virtually never off screen, we’re given almost no access to her thoughts, and Ozon’s seasonal structure (which divides the film into four chapters, each one kicked off by a different Françoise Hardy tune) tends to vault past key moments while depicting her mundane home life in expertly sketched detail. It’s an approach that suits the director well, as his more conventionally dramatic efforts, like Time To Leave and Hideaway (Le Refuge), tend to err on the side of schmaltz. Here, he allows viewers to observe in a way that precludes judgment, which lends surprising power to such potentially conventional scenes as the one in which her horrified mother finds out what’s been going on.
Initially, Vacth, who’d previously worked primarily as a model and has a supermodel’s glassy, slightly alien appearance, doesn’t seem like she has the chops for such a tricky role. Her performance deepens as the film progresses, however, even as she continues playing it close to the chest. Isabelle’s later interactions with her well-meaning stepfather and with a normal, nice-guy boyfriend slowly begin to hint at a deep pathology that never threatens to efface the character’s humanity; it’s remarkably assured and subtle work, worthy of comparison to Catherine Deneuve’s brilliantly blank turn in Buñuel’s film. Ozon is too savvy to have Deneuve appear in a cameo role (which would be overly cute), but he does offer that opportunity to Charlotte Rampling, who shows up for Young & Beautiful’s enigmatic final scene, playing the widow of one of Isabelle’s clients. What this older and beautiful woman says only confirms the movie’s abiding sense of keen curiosity coupled with sincere respect. It’s a classy combination, indeed.