Belle De Jour is perhaps the most iconic film made about prostitution. A 1967 French production made by Spaniard Luis Buñuel, it told the story of a young bourgeois housewife's ambiguous foray into high class prostitution, commanded by Cathrine Deneuve's ice queen persona and its director's penchant for surreally tinged, subjective viewpoints.
François Ozon has worked with Deneuve more than once himself and here has crafted his own sexual odeyssey with an equally removed turn from his leading lady - the stunning Marine Vacth - who more than lives up to this film's title.
The 17 year old Isabelle (Vacth) is an enigma from start to finish. Beginning in the summer at her family's beach resort she celebrates her birthday and loses her virginity one night to a handsome German-teen who she's made a strong impression on but seldom returns. He later comments to her brother that he's never met a girl like Isabelle, his voice filled with a loose concern, not of his own but for the world. His concern is well placed. In the middle of losing her virginity she imagines herself looking on at her display of love-making - a sign of regret? It certainly seems so at first but later it's clear this imagined apparition comes from her need or want to be desired, even desiring herself in this ultimate narcissistic fantasy.
Ozon divides his film into four segments, four seasons that chronicle Isabelle's life. It's a shock then that a mere 15 minutes in we're already dropped into autumn (the fall being no accident here) and following this young girl into a life as a call girl. No signposts have appeared to suggest such a drastic decision and as she meets clients in between school classes we're left to wonder her motives for such an experience; the money flows in and yet she was already of privilege and wants for nothing, she is mistreated and yet she keeps returning. This first half of the tale is shrouded in mystery that only lets up slightly within the second half as the family deal with such news in the wake of a revealing tragedy. It's then that Isabelle's sexuality becomes something much more monstrous with Vacth's engulfing presence recalling the nymphette of Kubrick's Lolita.
Ironic music is used throughout the film, mostly within sexual montages that highlight almost comically the emotional remove from the psychical acts. Even as the young Isabelle appears to be moving into a relationship with a classmate she terminates it after their first sexual encounter, resuming the ice cold exterior so damaged, unable or unwilling to connect. This seems to be an issue honed in by Ozon here, sex being clinically dissected into two parts and kept separate. This perhaps more evident in the internet age and the accessibility of pornography, something mentioned within the film on several occasions. The search for pleasure, for sexual gratification, can now more than ever be viewed in a light far removed from emotional bonding. The two dangerously regarded as separate entities.
For such a sexually overt career it's surprising Ozon hasn't taken on prostitution before now with his high work rate. Jeune & Jolie propels ones interest thanks to the assured central performance; a damaged soul, a sexual abyss, a largely unreadable woman whose beauty keeps you fixed on her blank page. It's a largely cold affair but a point immune to criticism, after all, for such a profession inspected here emotions must be left at the door and the money asked upfront. However, while impressive this isn't top tier Ozon and feels strangely less evocative than say Swimming Pool.