Young & Beautiful is the name of the movie, and you can see why Marine Vacth was cast. Early in the story, Vacth’s character, Isabelle, finds a spot on a beach and prepares to sun-bathe. She takes off a sketchy bikini top and the camera looks down on her breasts as if to say, we told you so.
These actions are part of the life of Isabelle, but it’s Vacth’s breasts we see. (There is always this odd double act at the movies.) This is a movie, Jeune & Belle, by Francois Ozon, first released in France in 2013 when Isabelle was said to be 17 and Vacth was 23.
Is Jeune & Belle (which opened in New York a few weeks ago) an adequate narrative title or is it more of a brand name, a label and an advertisement? In 2011 Vacth replaced Kate Moss as the image for Yves Saint Laurent’s perfumes. She is by now an enigmatic face seen in print advertisements, on billboards and in commercials. So “Young and Beautiful” is a promise for millions, as well as the title to a narrative. The movie is as still as gazing in the mirror. It’s not a narrative; it‘s a situation. It’s product placement as much as character.
Is the film more than erotica? An answer to that gets at the pusillanimous attitude of the director. We have to appraise the value of Isabelle: is she merely a 300 Euro prostitute, or could she be a significant figure in a work of fiction? She is 17, living with her mother, her step-father, and a young brother. There is a father somewhere but she isn’t interested in him. The home is modest but comfortable. Her family are fond without being stupid or intrusive. If she is unhappy or alienated, the film does not let it distract from her uncluttered urge to sunbathe without a bikini top.
But Isabelle takes to prostitution. A little clumsily at first, but with increasing assurance, she goes to hotel rooms with strangers and makes the carnal transaction. It’s not that she spends the money; it goes in a hideaway, untouched. Most of her men are modestly attractive, and gentlemen. One guy underpays her, but no one beats her up, rapes her, makes her take drugs or murders her. She remains young and vibrant in a film as clean and artificial as a Saint Laurent bathroom. Quite often, she seems to like the experience—so she is filmed, on her back, simmering in pleasure, eyes closed, hair flowing, her skin flawless—it’s advertisese. With one gray-haired man, a regular customer, she achieves a kind of tenderness. We see him giving her cunnilingus, which is not in the mainstream of cold-blooded prostitution—it’s as if he feels she matters. Is that why he has a heart attack in her arms? Is he her lover, a father figure, an emblem of kindness? Ozon is too tentative or timid to explore those prospects. The gray-haired man has one other purpose: He is the husband of the Charlotte Rampling character, and so the two women can get together at the end of the film and exchange cryptic grace notes.
As she changes her name to Lea, so Isabelle acquires a glassy serenity beyond the dead-eyed symmetry of her face. She handles it all pretty well, and the film amounts to an endorsement of what she is doing. Not that there’s an attempt at explanation. In Klute (one of the best films about prostitution), Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels knows why she likes the job—it’s the power, the sense of control, the actorly-like status (and Bree has tried to be an actress).
Klute had a murder mystery as its immediate hook, and there was suspense as to whether Bree was going to survive. But the picture had an ending in which the murderer had been eliminated, and so Bree was left “in love” with John Klute, the shy, awkward Pennsylvania detective (Donald Sutherland) who had become involved with her. As a real prospect that was ridiculous. Klute was a hick, emotionally undeveloped, and the sort of john Bree might flick out of her bed along with breakfast breadcrumbs and stray pubic hairs. He knows so little; she knows so much.
The striking thing about Klute in its era of surging feminism—a feeling catered to by having Fonda in the part—was that if a woman found power and control in making sex a transaction, why should she stop or look back, and yield to the old male pipe-dream of happiness (and subservience)? If she was brave enough she could screw the client and look at her watch at the same time, like a shrink looking for the 50-minute bell.
Prostitution is a lurking subject in the movies, not because many filmmakers have the courage to make a drastic statement on our sexual politics, but because the medium has always offered skin for a nickel, or $13.50. You may retort but that’s not real skin, and you’re right. But $13.50 is not 300 Euros, and fucking at the movies is much rosier on sexually transmitted disease, the statistics for divorce, and the brutalization of sex workers. A lot of wives would rather have their husbands going to movies like Young & Beautiful than screwing their best friend. In modern times, fantasy has become the snake in the grass of narrative, betraying and confounding hopes for real action.
There were always movies about tarts with hearts. Even with Jane Fonda, there is a vestigial box-office thought in Klute that it might be nice to imagine Bree going back to Pennsylvania, becoming Mrs. Klute, having babies, doing baked goods for the PTA, and just being uxorious, while giving Klute such a variety of recherche fucks that Donald Sutherland’s eyes pop out all the further.
No, the American movie has never been that brave. It harbors the faith that any good prostitute (I mean good in the mechanical sense) will become a bitter old woman, sitting alone, counting her money and the aridity of her life—that’s the portrait of the brothel-owning mother played by Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden. Do you remember how she takes pride in seeing that her son (James Dean) is dark and smart enough to deserve her investment money? If only the established prostitute could be an honest pillar of society, like a senator or a schoolteacher, to be played by Donna Reed. (And Reed was piercing as a prostitute with social ambitions in From Here to Eternity.)
In the ’60s, there were subversive stirrings. Jean-Luc Godard arrived at the sour analysis that acting was prostitution, and so was marriage. He made a group of films that explored these equations: Une Femme Mariee, Two or Three Things I Know About Her and, above all, Vivre Sa Vie, in which Nana (Anna Karina) was a woeful pretty face whose failure to get parts led to men on the street purchasing her body. Even there, Godard cast Anna Karina in the part, his discovery, his beloved, his wife (it’s a downhill path) so that she has to die at the end of the film, just as she is falling in love with a Good and Nice guy.
The most astringent work in the genre is still Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, in which Severine (Catherine Deneuve) a new, bourgeois bride seeks to ease boredom by working afternoons in a brothel. Bunuel is honest and unsentimental: Her johns are never Good or Nice; they are neither suitable nor sentimental, but Severine takes pleasure in all of them. It was with his customary nonchalance, just short of ennui, that Bunuel served up his chilling parable while slipping Deneuve in and out of her underwear. Deneuve was sublime as Severine because she knew that being beautiful took no effort. It was her indifference that was arousing.
Marine Vacth in Young and Beautiful is only what the title offers. She strips time and again for the movie … and for the money (if not hers then the money the film makes for its companies). But there’s no hint that she’ll grow older, or that air and time will exhaust her skin. This is art-house porn. The distressing thing about this new film is that the subversiveness from the ’60s and the ’70s has been varnished over by a can of syrup cum. Yes, I’m speaking in a vulgar and offensive way, but sex is bodily fluids and visceral urges and not Pretty Woman Goes to College. The economic transactions of marriage are a modern maelstrom, as uneasy as the happy ending. Prostitution in polite society is still a nettle fearfully grasped. You see, society is not polite and it’s about time movies stopped peddling that fluff. Leave it to Yves Saint Laurent.