Following on from the Kristen Scott-Thomas-starring In the House (2012), which hit screens back in March, prolific French director François Ozon returns to UK cinemas for the second time this year with Jeune & Jolie (2013). Playing at the London Film Festival ahead of a wider cinematic release, it is an elusive study of a 17-year-old girl’s sexual awakening built around an exceptional performance from actress and model Marine Vacth. Vacth perfectly encapsulates the youth and beauty of the title whilst the audience is left to admire her – and the drama itself – from something of a distance and through a primarily male gaze.
Taking place across four clearly delineated seasons (each of which is also associated with a particular, pertinent, song) it opens during a sun-drenched summer holiday. Here, the teenage Isabelle (Vacth) has a brief tryst with a young man and loses her virginity during a rendezvous on the beach. Despite seeming thoroughly underwhelmed by her experience, when the action shifts to a Parisian autumn Isabelle has embraced her sexuality with gusto. She has embarked on both sexual odyssey and career, becoming a high class prostitute in between school and homework. Daughter to a stable middle-class couple, there’s no apparent circumstantial motive for her actions and she remains unimpressed by sex.
However, our heroine’s motives remain tantalisingly obscured throughout. Despite Isabelle (and Vacth) being laid bare on several occasions, the character is never truly naked. Her reasons remain unspoken, and she proves a scintillating but distant presence. Her eyes belie her age and never betray her secrets making her bewitching whilst frustrating. It is a turn that will set the ex-model on the way to stardom, and she is more than ably supported by Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, and an odd late cameo from Charlotte Rampling. All the while, Ozon and cinematographer Pascal Marti craft a film of visual splendour to match its photogenic lead.
Sadly, Jeune & Jolie ultimately bares a bit more than a passing resemblance to its inscrutable protagonist. It is elegant and captivating, but leaves you wondering exactly how much is going on behind its melancholic eyes. Ozon’s insistence on not attempting to provide easy answers to what seem to be complex emotional issues is admirable, as is his decision to shy away from tying things up into a neat little bow. What it does leave a lingering, however, is a desire for a more profound observation than the ambiguous ones it seems to be proffering about the fear of female sexuality and the unreadable mysteriousness of women.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.