French director tackles sex and the teenager

French director François Ozon's desire for 'fresh flesh' sees him tackle teenage prostitution in his latest film, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm

The moment François Ozon understood the impact of his film Young & Beautiful (aka Jeune & Jolie) came at an early screening of the drama in Paris. To watch this story of a teenage girl from a bourgeois family who turns to prostitution, the French director invited a group of friends - including mothers of adolescent children the same age as his character. "After the screening, they all called their daughters - 'What are you doing tonight? We have to speak tomorrow!'"

The 14th film of the 46-year-old director's rapid-fire career depicts every parent's worst nightmare. It begins with Isabelle (Marine Vacth) losing her virginity during a family summer holiday, but by autumn the 17-year-old schoolgirl is advertising sexual services on a website and hooking up with clients in five-star hotels while keeping everything a secret from her friends and family.

It's difficult to judge my place in French cinema. I just do it my own way
Francois ozon, director 

Ozon's research into the subject was rather scattershot, if truth be told. Initially he called up French female director Maïwenn (who made the 2011 crime drama Polisse) for contacts. He then spoke to police officers who dealt with such forms of prostitution, and a psychologist who specialised in adolescent behaviour. But he stopped short of meeting girls who had led this sort of double life. "Very often it's secret or they want to forget it," he says.

Interestingly, his film comes on the back of Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska's 2011 movie Elles, which stars Juliette Binoche as a journalist interviewing university students moonlighting as prostitutes. Ozon, it seems, is not a fan. "It was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do, so thank you for the connection!" he says. "What I didn't like in this movie [was that] it was the bourgeois woman who discovers her sexuality - I think it was very clichéd."

While Szumowska sets out to analyse in Elles, Ozon does not explain Isabelle's motivations. More enigmatic than the Mona Lisa, the teenager rarely shows any emotion, whether she's losing her virginity or satisfying her clients. "The idea of the film was to follow her - to be with her, to try to understand her, to find what is behind this face, what is the mystery of this girl," says Ozon. "The idea was not to have the answers. I don't have the answers."

He feels Isabelle's actions are in keeping with her age group. "All teenagers are mysterious," he says with a shrug. "Very often, you learn that a teenager committed suicide, and you had [thought] it was the perfect family [they came from] and you saw no problem … but inside things happen and we are not able to see that."

All teenagers are subject to change, he suggests. "It's the moment when you don't want to be naked in front of your parents; you discover your sexuality and it's very mysterious and very secret."

While he has no children of his own, Ozon seems in tune with the growing pains of adolescence. "I think when you're a teenager, you start to feel your body. You want to discover and at the same time you have a real disillusion about what life is, sexuality, what love is, who are your parents - you realise there are a lot of lies. So it's a very strong period. You have many fights in yourself. You want things to happen, and you're afraid of nothing. You think you're immortal."

Once dubbed the enfant terrible of French cinema, it's hardly the first time Ozon has tackled youthful sexuality in his career. Think of his 1998 feature debut Sitcom, a raucous comedy about a suburban family confronted with their son's homosexuality and their daughter's S&M tendencies. His 2003 film Swimming Pool, one of several collaborations with Charlotte Rampling (who appears briefly in Young & Beautiful), is a voyeuristic tale of a mystery writer who becomes intrigued by her publisher's provocative daughter.

Most recently, 2012's In the House is a playful yet sinister tale of a schoolteacher who becomes intrigued by the essays of one of his pupils - which reveal his increasing desire for the middle-aged mother of a friend. It was working on this film that inspired him to make Young & Beautiful. "I had real pleasure working again with young actors," he says, noting that some of his films such as Under the Sand, 8 Women and Potiche all dealt with "more mature characters or people older than me, so I wanted to go back to the fresh flesh".

There has always been a youthful, anarchic energy to Ozon's films - even back in the days of his short films. Take 1988's Photo de Famille: in that silent short film, a man (played by Ozon's brother, Guillaume) kills his family (played by their real-life relatives): he chokes his father, biology professor René Ozon, poisons his teacher-mother Anne-Marie, and stabs sister Julie. It felt like a violent rebellion against his upbringing. "For me, adolescence was a terrible period. I have no nostalgia for it - a period of fights, struggles, family problems. Like many teenagers," Ozon says.

Raised in Paris, his troubles extended to the classroom. "I was not a good student. I was very bad. I was really the boy in the back row." It was only when he began to study cinema at Paris' celebrated film school La Fémis that he "suddenly" became a good student. "I was surprised because I thought I would be the guy causing havoc in class." He even had French director Eric Rohmer as a teacher. "His lessons were so amazing for me."

Whether or not Ozon is the successor to the late Rohmer, as some claim, he's the last person one should ask. "It's difficult to judge my place in French cinema. I just do it my own way," he says.

Maybe he's closer to Claude Chabrol. He's adapting The New Girlfriend - a short story by Ruth Rendell, the British crime writer previously taken on by Chabrol in 1995's La Cérémonie. "I love mystery in movies. I like to work during movies, so I make you work too."

Young & Beautiful opens on Thursday