Lock Up Your Daughters! Part 2: François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful

A schoolgirl becomes a call girl in this evocative drama with a star-making role for Marine Vacth

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The first full day of Cannes screenings featured two films — Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and François Ozon’s Jeune & Jolie — about middle-class teenage girls who chose a life of crime. Our reviews follow.

June nights! Seventeen! Drink it in.
Sap is champagne, it goes to your head. . .
The mind wanders, you feel a kiss
On your lips, quivering like a living thing.

In a Paris schoolroom, teenagers recite snippets from Rimbaud’s poem “No One’s Serious at Seventeen.” One of these students, Isabelle Bontale (Marine Vacth), fills her evenings with more than homework and dreams of the boy in the back row. After a summer by the sea, during which she allowed a German boy to take her virginity, Isabelle has turned her blooming sexuality into a business enterprise: freelance prostitution. Earning 300 to 500 Euros for each hotel assignation, she goes by the name Léa and gives her age as 20. She’s 17.

(READ: A 1962 review of a Rimbaud biography by subscribing to TIME)

In outline, Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie) appears sensational: I Was a Teenage Call Girl. Yet François Ozon’s film is tender, judicious, fascinated, sexually charged but not prurient. It pins no blame on society, school, the girl’s clients or her parents. Isabelle treats her concerned mother (Geraldine Pailhas) and amiable stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot) the way any teen might: as the security guards of an enemy state who deserve little communication and no straight answers. In fact, they are the innocents, she the daredevil spy with a dirty secret. She is close to her sweet younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat), who watches her sunbathe nude or masturbate in her bedroom while he remains ignorant of her profitable secret. So is everyone else; Isabelle has a facility for compartmentalizing her double life. That first night, as she lies on the beach, the German boy pounding his manhood into her, another Isabelle stands nearby watching, appraising, detached.

Why does she choose this line of work? That is for the spectator to speculate. “This young woman is a mystery to me, too,” Ozon says. “I’m not ahead of her, I’m simply following her, like an entomologist gradually falling in love with the creature he’s studying.” But a key can be found in Ozon’s last film, In the House, in which a 16-year-old schoolboy devised an elaborate, largely fictional world both to amuse himself and to test his teacher. Isabelle, we may infer, wants to create a life more eventful, dramatic and potentially perilous than those of her classmates.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of François Ozon’s In the House)

“It was like a game,” she tells a psychiatrist (Serge Hefez) she is obliged to consult. “I didn’t feel much during it. But when I thought about it at home, or at school, I wanted to do it again.” She may be drawn to her more considerate clients, like the elderly Georges (Johan Leysen). Even when taking orders of submission from sadistic creeps, Isabelle is in charge. Armored in self-confidence, she needs no pimp to protect her. Her choice of profession is not about the sex. It’s about the power.

Set in today’s Paris, Young & Beautiful also takes several cues from 1960s French popular culture. Isabelle has cinema forebears in the characters played by Catherine Deneuve in Luis Buñuel’s Belle du jour (1967) and Dominique Sanda in Robert Bresson’s La femme douce (1969). Vacth resembles both actresses in her slim, cool, unyielding beauty. She could also be a twin sister to Françoise Hardy, the singer and model; four Hardy songs — “L’Amour d’un garçon” (“The Love of a Boy”), “A Quoi ça cert” (“Why Even Try?”), “Première rencontre” (“First Encounter”) and “Je suis moi” (“I Am Me”) — accompany the four seasons in which the film is set. Hardy’s songs are about the pains of first love; this film is about the business of post-love.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s tribute to French filmmaker Robert Bresson)

Ozon’s early films focused on young women manipulating their elders: Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 8 Women and Swimming Pool, all with Ludivine Sagnier as their driving sexual force. (Sagnier’s Swimming Pool costar, Charlotte Rampling, makes a welcome, poignant appearance late in Young & Beautiful.) Ozon says that In the House reminded him of his pleasure directing young actors. Like that film’s Ernst Umhauer, Vacth is a few years older than her character; she turned 23 Tuesday but can pass for a mature 17 — Isabelle’s 17.

Her blue eyes shining above a field of freckles, Vacth suggests a classical statue with subtle internal bruises. Unlike the actresses in The Bling Ring, playing girls whose greatest ambition is to accessorize with other people’s jewelry, Vacth has a seductive, covert intelligence. She may not let viewers in on Isabelle’s motives, but she does suggest that something is going on. Audiences should be pleased to go with her, not knowing the destination but happy to take the trip. You feel a kiss / On your lips, quivering like a living thing. And that kiss comes from a girl of 17 who is older than Circe. Drink it in.