Ozon on his latest film Young and Beautiful and why he prefers tension on set.
“You look like a precocious schoolgirl,” Michel Piccoli tells Catherine Deneuve—impeccably attired in a formal black couture dress and white collar—toward the end of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 Belle de Jour.
Taking its cue from that line, François Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie ("Young and Beautiful"), functions as a minimalist homage to Belle de Jour. Without predictable film noir elements, it’s more restrained in tone, though not devoid of humor, irony, or of big trouble. And, while stylistically poles apart, Ozon shares Buñuel’s strong aversion to moralizing.
In a striking French Riviera beach scene, Ozon’s camera frames a double image of seventeen-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacht) observing herself as an inexperienced boy her own age takes her virginity. The scene telegraphs her psychic distance from the event and foreshadows her double life back at Paris’s prestigious Lycée Henri-IV in the fall. Rather than seeking a more sensitive guy or a same-gender lover, unbeknownst to her affluent parents, Isabelle sets herself up on the Internet as Léa, a high-class call girl. The transactional sex at 300 Euros a pop takes place in sterile hotel rooms with male executives (old enough to be your father, she later defiantly fires back at her fifty-ish shrink).
Absent is the financial need that, in real life, sadly propels most of the sex workers in France—and in the US too—including students of both genders. In a nuanced portrait, Vacht’s Isabelle displays the willfulness and contrary, volatile emotional states that come with hormonal change.
A provocateur and acute satirist of the bourgeoisie who never shies from transgressive content, in his fifteen well-crafted features and notable shorts, Ozon has forged an original style that blends psychosexual intrigue with elements of black comedy and the mystery thriller. Several of his earlier films have dealt with the vagaries of adolescent sexual desire, among them Summer Dress, Criminal Lovers, and Water Drops on Burning Rocks, a stunning adaptation of an unproduced play which Fassbinder wrote at 19.
Young and Beautiful also joins the ranks of Ozon’s many woman-centered films. Though unsettling, it would be rash to dismiss it as merely a male director’s fantasy. An ardent, self-declared fan of actresses, Ozon has directed Deneuve in the 1977 feminist comedy Potiche (Trophy Wife) as a hausfrau who replaces her cardiac husband as boss of an umbrella factory and Charlotte Rampling as a married woman coping with the loss of her long-time partner in Under the Sand, and as a mystery novelist with writer’s block in Swimming Pool.
We spoke briefly last month in the bustling lobby of SoHo’s Mercer Hotel. Ozon was anticipating Young and Beautiful’s first public screening that night at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema; I’d been asked to read a short story on WBAI the next day, International Women’s Day. Both factors affected the tenor of our conversation, which I have translated from the French.
Liza Béar We’ve met before.
François Ozon Yes, several times!
LB I found this quote from our first interview in 2000, about Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks: “My goal is to dig deep into a story to the place where it hurts, as Fassbinder did in his films . . . not to stay with the nice superficial side of things.”
FO That’s still my goal, yes. At the cinema I like to be entertained, but mostly I like to be jolted, to be thrown off balance about what I think is right or wrong. In my own films I try to show how complex or ambiguous situations can be. I don’t take a stand. I pose questions. The spectator is smart enough to look for the answers in himself.
LB Or herself.
FO That disturbs people who don’t want to identify with characters onscreen. They’re in denial. I’d rather see films where I might learn something new about myself.
LB Since 2003, you’ve made at least ten films, one a year. Given that financing is no problem, how do you sustain this creative rhythm and also manage to make different kinds of films?
FO Out of desire—for pleasure. I have director friends who suffer each time they make a film, but I’m happiest when I’m making films.
LB No angst? Even on set?
FO Yes, especially on set! At times it’s difficult. I don’t do drugs, but I must be addicted to filmmaking, to everything about it. While you’re making a film, relationships are so much more intense. Afterward, normal life seems tedious. I hate to be bored! Secondly, I started out making lots of short films. So I know all aspects of production. I realized early on that for features, I’d have to know what everything costs. Because obviously you don’t make a film like Young and Beautiful with the same budget as 8 Women, for instance.
LB Or Potiche.
FO Or Potiche. Those are comedies with major stars. I understood very quickly I’d have to adapt my stories to the budgets set by the producer.
LB And how do you stay within budget? Chris Menges told me that for A World Apart, filmed in Zimbabwe, he kept all the locations within a ten-minute drive of the hotel.
FO Well, whether to shoot on location or in the studio is a major decision—it’s cheaper to shoot on location. Or sometimes it’s possible to adapt the same set for four or five different scenes. You have to be very hands-on. I’m pragmatic.
LB But also a perfectionist!
FO Yes, I’m demanding! It’s easy to waste money in production. Eric Rohmer was my teacher at university. Rather than give lectures about film theory, as we expected, all he talked about was money. He’d say, if you need an inexpensive carpet for a scene, go to Saint Maclou, the discount store outside Paris where he’d bought the carpet for his film, Les Nuits de la pleine lune (Full Moon in Paris). It was fascinating to hear Rohmer, this great intellectual who’d written a very influential book on Hitchcock with Claude Chabrol, discussing something concrete like the price of a carpet.
LB That reminds me, I noticed an odd detail in the living room set of Young and Beautiful, a cushion cover with the Union Jack, the British flag. Did you grow up in an Anglophile milieu?
FO No. Not at all! And I dislike that cushion. I wish it hadn’t been there.
LB A few days ago. I rewatched Water Drops on Burning Rocks, one of my favorite films of yours. The color turquoise is used very frequently—Leopold’s shirt, Anna’s underwear. And in Young and Beautiful, Isabelle’s jeans are turquoise too.
FO The costume designer, Pascaline Chavanne, also worked on Water Drops. Costumes are very important to me and I work closely with Pascaline on all my films. We discuss colors a lot and I’m always present during the tryouts—costume is so revealing of character. Because of Isabelle’s double life in Young and Beautiful, there’s a whole ritual of transformation. What she wears when she’s a call girl, and when she’s at her parents’ house—she’s two different characters. So it was important to find exactly the right neutral coat that she would wear as a high school sophomore when she wasn’t trying to look feminine, and the proper outfit for a high class call girl.
LB At La Fémis [Fondation Européenne pour les Métiers de l’Image et du Son, France’s national film school] you made a short film called Victor . . .
FO Did you see it? I think the whole film’s on YouTube.
LB I saw a clip on your website. Did you keep Victor as the name of Isabelle’s younger brother for nostalgic reasons, for what Victor represents for you, the ultimate rebellion of a young—
FO Yes. Victor was inspired by a news item about a young Austrian boy who wanted to commit suicide. At the critical moment he thought to himself, If I commit suicide, my parents will suffer. So he killed his parents. But after he’d killed them, he realized that he didn’t want to die anymore! He finished out his life in a psychiatric hospital. I adored this story.
LB How old were you when you read it?
FO I must have been twenty-one or twenty-two. It was a student film. But I didn’t want the character to end his life in a psychiatric hospital. I wanted his life to start over! So I changed the ending: he’s killed his parents and he’s very happy. It’s called an altruistic suicide.
LB In Young and Beautiful, Isabelle’s relationship with Victor is the closest one she has. How old is he, twelve, thirteen?
FO Twelve. He reaches puberty at the end of the film. Voila. At the beginning he’s still a child. He’s in cahoots with his sister. But after her first sexual rapport, she stops confiding in him, to protect him from the emotional turbulence she’s going through. Thanks to the Internet and new technologies, today’s twelve-year-olds know everything—they’ve already seen pornographic images. The passage from childhood to adolescence is only three years, but at that age it’s a huge chasm.
LB You used the four seasons to structure the narrative—[Deneuve, who starred in Ozon’s films 8 Women and Potiche, walks by the table and says hello].
FO (smiling) Catherine.
LB She’s starring in a film at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema as well.
FO Aah! Elle s’en va ("gone away").
LB As I was saying, the changing seasons allow you to rotate the point of view.
FO More importantly, I was trying to convey the sense of time. For me now, time rushes by. But as an adolescent it went much too slowly. Over a single year, an enormous number of things can happen. So the story I wrote is about how a seventeen-year-old character, Isabelle, evolves. And since I wanted the film to be impressionistic, I picked four different stages in her transformation showing how this young woman changes from one season to the next.
LB Yes, but I asked about the rotating point of view.
FO Summer is the young brother’s point of view. He spies on her on the beach, and actually on the whole family. Then in the fall when Isabelle becomes a call girl, it’s her client Georges’s point of view. Winter is her mother’s point of view, after the police investigation, and spring is her stepfather’s. But that’s only at the beginning of each sequence; each time I return quickly to Isabelle’s. My idea was to present this young woman as essentially mysterious because that’s the nature of adolescence—and to show all the people around her who try to understand her actions.
LB Did you become aware of Vacht as a model, or did you see her in The Man with the Golden Brain or Cédric Klapisch’s My Piece of the Pie?
FO I had a casting call for all the current young French actresses. She plays a mannequin in Klapisch’s film—not a very interesting role. But when I did screen tests I realized she fit the part because she had an air of mystery about her—a melancholy look, real sadness. At the same time, I thought she had an inner strength.
LB A lot of pride.
FO Yes, that’s it. I needed someone proud who wouldn’t seem like a victim.
LB It’s interesting that you picked this role for the character at a time when prostitution is in the headlines in France. Controversial legislation to impose a fine on the johns is about to be passed. Though some people use the term sex worker—there’s even a sex workers’ union called STRASS, Syndicat du Travail Sexuel.
FO You can’t say sex workers in France.
LB How’s that?
FO It just won’t fly.
LB But did you develop your story for Young and Beautiful while this public discussion was going on, or before?
FO What I was interested in was a young girl’s discovery of her sexuality. A girl in the here and now. That’s very different from the period of my adolescence or of yours when there wasn’t the Internet and new technology and we didn’t have instant access to all these images, and to these websites. In this film I wanted to show how easy it is for someone to become a prostitute. For Deneuve in Belle de Jour, becoming a prostitute was a big deal. Today, you go online, you upload your photo and voila! In an hour you have a rendezvous. Many young people today don’t think of it as transgressive behavior.
LB But that wasn’t my question exactly. I understand your point of view! I wondered when you chose this element of the story, this type of behavior for your character, in relation to the public discussion of prostitution in France and the new legislation?
FO I wrote the script nearly two years ago, and for me the subject of the film isn’t prostitution, it’s adolescence. The idea of Isabelle turning tricks was a secondary concern.
LB Yes, but it’s that aspect of her behavior that drives the script, isn’t it? She could have become an Islamic fundamentalist or joined Pussy Riot to rebel against her bourgeois parents.
FO I also wanted to show how conscious of their power youth are today. Isabelle knows she’s young and beautiful and makes use of it. She organizes those meetings. She’s in control. And I wanted to explore this paradox: it’s not because one is the object of another’s desire that one isn’t in control of the situation.
LB Would you repeat that, please? Double negative!
FO (repeats the sentence: Ce n’est pas parce qu’on est dans le désir des autres que ce n’est pas nous qui controlons les choses.)
LB Well, I’m not so sure about that!
FO Isabelle is in control because she asks for money. Being treated as an object in a sexual tryst doesn’t mean you don’t have some power. That’s the logic behind sadomasochism.
LB In your films, sexual initiation is often by an older man. In Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Leopold is 50 and Franz is 20. And in Criminal Lovers, there’s also an older man, an ogre—
FO That was a rape.
LB But in Young and Beautiful, it might be hard for some of the audience to accept that Isabelle’s sexual initiation—since it didn’t work out with the German on the beach . . .
FO Yes, everyone flunks it their first time.
LB Well, perhaps not everyone!
FO Oh, please tell me about someone who enjoyed sex the first time! (laughter) I don’t know anyone.
LB It might be difficult for some people to imagine that such a physically attractive person—
FO From a privileged background—
LB That’s not what I was going to say!
FO But that’s precisely it. It’s because of her beauty, paradoxically, that she does it. I researched this with a psychoanalyst in France—who actually plays the shrink in the movie—who told me right away that there’s a syndrome in which exceptionally beautiful young women think of their beauty as a burden.
LB That I can understand. It’s another way of being objectified.
FO And out of a masochistic urge to be sullied, defiled—well, there you have the premise of Belle de Jour! I don’t like it when people try to generalize. I’m telling a very particular story about a specific character. I’m not implying that all young women do this.
LB Earlier you referred to the film as “impressionistic.” Isabelle’s scenes with her family, brother, mother, the shrink, the police all seem sharply drawn and are often humorous or ironic. Then the sex scenes, which are well-framed and mercifully brief—
FO They’re from Isabelle’s point of view. She’s more excited by the preparation, the secrecy—
LB The anticipation. But those scenes seem somewhat idealized—the plush hotel settings. It seems possible that Isabelle might have fantasized these encounters, just from watching so much pornography. And since you had just made In the House, where you have segues between—
FO Reality and fiction . . .
LB I’m trying to put myself in your place. Once you go down that path, maybe you’d want to continue?
FO Yes, but the big difference with In the House is that the schoolboy character Claude has fantasies and writes about them; in Young and Beautiful, Isabelle acts them out. But, as she later tells the shrink, she takes pleasure in imagining the encounters, setting them up. What she likes is the ritualistic part of the activity. And those rituals become addictive, they stoke her desire. She wants to escape from the shackles of her parents’ expectations, to have an adventure that’s bigger than life.
LB Which brings me back to Victor, in which the character says he’s not worthy of his parents. Did you have this feeling growing up?
(laughter) I thought my parents weren’t worthy of me. I was very pretentious. And insolent.
LB I’m curious as to whether you’ll expand on the concept of prostitution, in a metaphorical sense, in another film, on the ways in which people sell out. What‘s really sad is not so much Isabelle’s melancholy—as in Mallarmé’s La chair est triste, hélas/ Et j’ai lu tous les livres, her escapist fantasy—but the way her eyes light up when she counts her money—even though she doesn’t need or spend it.
FO It’s the reality of today’s youth, their relationship to money. It’s the materialism of a capitalist society. What I’ve said in France is that Young and Beautiful is a political film in the sense that it alludes to the mercantile aspect of personal relationships. And Isabelle falls within that paradigm. She doesn’t need to prostitute herself. She could just have had adventures with boys to discover her sexuality. But she thinks she has a monetary value. So she treats herself as merchandise. She sells herself.
LB A telling scene in the film is the argument with her mother over how to use the money she’s earned. She wants to pay the shrink with the money; her mother wants to give it to a charity for prostitutes. And the shrink takes Isabelle’s side!
FO The money is also a form of protection. Isabelle thinks that she will learn about sex in almost a technical manner, without any emotional connection. And although the other guys treat her like an object, one client, Georges, thinks of her sexual enjoyment too—because he sees her differently, because he’s older, for lots of reasons.
LB Because he has a daughter. . .
FO Perhaps. And her father is absent. In any case, the way I wrote the script, some genuine chemistry develops between them. It’s complicated!
LB Yep. Sex isn’t algebra.
FO What do you think Americans will make of this film?
Liza Béar is a writer, filmmaker and a contributing editor at BOMB.