François Ozon could never be called a cold or somber filmmaker, but his notoriety as a ringleader of camp flamboyance has always been misleading. The mainstream success of the gaudy musical 8 Women and satirical pulp exercise Swimming Pool thrust him into an international spotlight as a sort of Gallic Almodóvar—an auteur of irresistible style even when the substance of his films was questionable. But contrary to his reputation, Ozon has proven himself to be a master of restraint as well as excess. The devastating Under the Sand, his finest work, is a ghost story predicated on fetish and fantasy, but its narrative ostentations are grounded by minimal dialogue and an austere mise-en-scène; the result is a hypnotic viewing experience in which delusion and delirium reverberate with truth. And like Under the Sand, Young and Beautiful sees Ozon less as a prankster of excess than as a humanist Haneke, articulating the outrageous lurking beneath the ordinary—and vice versa. Though the filmmaker's flair for the bombastic and macabre remains, with Young and Beautiful he channels that energy into a quiet, earthbound story that grows stranger and sneakier as it progresses.
The film opens with a shot of Isabelle (Marine Vacth), the striking teenager to whom the title clearly refers, glimpsed from above in a cheeky binocular shot; the theme of voyeurism, on part of both the character and camera, is so blatant that it almost reads as a joke. It's a quintessentially Ozonian beginning, considering his films' main through line is their (and their characters') undying obsession with the act of looking; the image of Isabelle's outstretched figure even functions as a self-referential nod to Swimming Pool. Isabelle's observer is her prepubescent brother, Victor (Fantin Ravat), whose interest in her body soon reveals itself to be less sexual or even objectifying than it is a manifestation of his own self-fixation. Later in the scene, he regales her with questions about the boy she's seeing, making her promise to tell him of whatever sexual exploits she gets up to: In Isabelle, Victor seems to see a more developed variation of himself, through whom he can vicariously experience her newfound sexual agency, but only insofar as she allows him.
Isabelle is thus identified early on as a figure of power and authority, and her male counterpart literally infantile by comparison. This dynamic typifies Isabelle's entire sexual coming of age, which begins with a passionless summer fling and evolves into a series of prostitution stints upon her family's return to their Parisian home; significantly, all developments are instigated by Isabelle, not the more experienced partner(s). Despite the swoony pop soundtrack and vibrant cinematography, Young and Beautiful's increasingly unnerving story mostly unfolds with minimal flair, intensely focused as it is on its steely and enigmatic protagonist. What makes Ozon's film remarkable is its deference to Isabelle, who acts as the singular agent not only of her own sexuality, but of the narrative itself. She dominates every man she encounters and every woman who tries to place judgment on her, effectively reversing the traditional power dynamic of the voyeuristic gaze. When her actions eventually lead to dangerous consequences, they're nothing like the consequences that normally befall young prostitutes on screen, and despite repeated plot developments that threaten to compromise the story's boldness and irreverence, Ozon, by way of Isabelle, continually steers away from self-righteous or moralistic terrain up to the film's very end. Young & Beautiful's final scene is in fact an unexpectedly graceful one, announcing the completion of Isabelle's journey of self-discovery without ceding her any of her power or authority.