François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful will inevitably be compared to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Both films zero in on a young woman with an insatiable libido—a woman determined to lose her virginity as soon as possible, and rather inexplicably compelled to carry out continuous sexual exploits. But whereas von Trier characteristically aims to punish his audience, all the while presenting a kind of snarky, anthropological farce, Ozon largely plays it straight, artfully examining a gorgeous adolescent, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), whose embrace of her sexuality is so intense that she opts, out of anything but necessity, to become a professional escort (she dons her mother’s clothes, lies about her age, and slips in and out of hotel rooms on school nights). It’s a murky topic even for Ozon himself, who, when meeting me in the café at New York’s Mercer Hotel, admits that Isabelle was a mystery to him—one he constantly tried to crack amid the process of making Young and Beautiful.
For me, the title of this film relates to how women can be sexually demeaned, and it’s most expressed when Isabelle’s mother’s boyfriend sizes Isabelle up, essentially saying that, for being young and beautiful, she’s asking for attention. The line comes off as more misogynistic than any of the “whore” insults Isabelle endures. What did you most want to express in regard to how men, or maybe all of us, view female sexuality?
For me, when I do a film, there’s little difference between whether [the protagonist] is male or female. This film could be about a boy doing prostitution. The only difference would be that I would have to deal with homosexuality, because, when you’re a boy of 16 and you’re doing prostitution, very often you have to sleep with old men. That was the first idea—to do a film about a boy exploring and discovering his sexuality. But I thought it would be too heavy to have prostitution and homosexuality. Eventually, I just wanted to do, not a lighter movie, but a more girlish movie. But you’re asking if it’s a male fantasy? That’s what a lot of people have said about the film.
No, I didn’t read it as a male fantasy.
Oh, well that’s good.
But I did respond to how the mother recoiled at the boyfriend’s remark. Because even though her daughter is the one willfully insinuating these acts, she’s still being shamed, if even unwittingly, from a male perspective, as if her youth, beauty, and gender are part of an invitation she should apologize for.
Well, what also amused me was that it’s difficult for a stepfather to find his place in the family. And what he says is really a cliché about young girls. It’s a chauvinistic expression, the words he uses. He’s pretty maladroit when it comes to adapting to this family. But he tries. Very often, we say clichés in real life, whether they’re about males or females. For him, the situation’s not shocking, it’s obvious. People are asking to sleep with her because she’s so beautiful. It’s a tradition of so many centuries of machismo and paternalism. I wanted to play with this cliché and show the complexity of that, and the ambiguity of the situation.
There was a recent news story about an American female college student who admitted to doing porn to pay for her education.
Yes, we see similar things in France.
Well, it brought up a lot of questions about female empowerment, and how, for many, that idea can be murky when it comes to women using their own bodies. Can you describe the ways in which you see Isabelle as being empowered?
I think she’s a very powerful girl. She controls everything, and it’s not necessarily because she has the desire of the men. The fact that she’s submitting in certain sexual acts doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the power. It’s like when you watch something sadomasochistic—we see one partner as the victim, but that’s not the reality. What interested me is that she controls everything, everything is easy for her, prostitution is easy, until the death of [one of her johns]. At this moment, everything is destroyed, and she’s in front of something of reality, which is this death. She realizes what she did at this moment. It was important.
I found it interesting that, in both instances in which we literally see Isabelle positioned on top, and visually dominant, once with the old man and once with her boyfriend later, neither scenario ends well. What were you hoping to achieve there? Why give her power and then cause her pain?
[Laughs] It’s funny to think of the sexual position as meaning something. I think, with the old man, she has pleasure, maybe for the first time. She has her own sexuality and she can focus on her own pleasure, which isn’t the case with the other clients. And the difference with the young boy is she’s giving him pleasure—she helps him to have pleasure. So I think it is about power, but at the same time, there’s a real exchange in these two scenes. And that’s not because she’s up, or because she controls everything. She’s learning her sexuality with these two men, but I don’t think it’s a judgment, or that the men are condemned because of that.
Speaking of control, it’s interesting that, as you said, Isabelle seems in control of all these scenarios, yet there are times when her desire seems clearly beyond her control. Can you describe the push and pull of these two elements?
Yes. She’s not about to connect any notions to sexuality. She doesn’t know where her desire is. In a very naïve way, she decides she will rediscover her desire by becoming the desire of men. It’s a very naïve way to think and discover things—except with the old man. He’s able to watch her differently and think about her pleasure. I wanted to show this young girl who embodies the Rimbaud poem that’s read in the film: “No one’s serious at 17.” And yet, in a way, Isabelle is still very serious. She thinks very seriously. She’s exploring her identity. She just finds a very strange way to do it.
I did want to ask about that poem. Has Rimbaud’s work been influential to you, or influential on this project in particular?
It’s a very famous poem in France. Everybody knows it. And the line, “No one’s serious at 17,” is a kind of motto. Everybody knows this line. So it was interesting for me to use it in the film, and to ask young people—the extras in the film [who play students]—what they think about the poem. And what the extras say in the film is what they really felt.
So the inciting incident of the movie—Isabelle’s loss of innocence—is her beachside loss of virginity. Were you more interested in exploring the aftermath of a young woman’s deflowering or the aftermath of a young woman’s first love? Do you think she had any love for the boy, Felix?
No, I don’t think she was in love with him. I think, like many young people, she wanted to get rid of her virginity—to get over it. She wants to turn the page and say, “It’s done. Now it’s time to do serious things.” And I think she chooses this boy because he’s cute, and he’s nice, but she’s not in love. And actually, he’s a bad lover. And for me it was important to express that, very often, the first time isn’t good for anyone. I don’t know someone who, boy or girl, had a good experience their first time. And this is also the first instance of the doubling [of Isabelle] in the film. I wanted to show the experience of making sex and watching ourselves having sex. I don’t know if it’s true of everyone, but there is this fantasy and phenomenon of wanting to see yourself and be outside of yourself during sex. I wanted to show that during her first sex scene.