Young and Beautiful’s opening shot is through a pair of binoculars, watching seventeen year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) as she strolls along the beach. Isabelle moves from beach to Parisian hotel rooms as a part-time prostitute by the name of Lea, while director François Ozon continues to survey her from a distance. Isabelle’s reasons for going into sex work are never fully explained. It is not that she is entirely opaque; rather this is observation, not explanation.
Isabelle/Lea embodies the Madonna-whore dichotomy that is at the heart of the complex, contradictory demands of female sexuality within a patriarchy. She is a virgin to her friends and family; a compliant lover with her clients. When her secret is revealed, she is regarded with distrust as though she bears a scarlet letter.
Ozon directs Young and Beautiful with a languorous drowsiness, using simple visual symbols with clarity and cleverness, as when Isabelle dispassionately (and impossibly) surveys her own first sexual experience. The best shot is a lingering close-up of the “love locks” festooning one of Paris’s bridges; typically a clichéd endorsement of perpetual monogamy, here slyly imbued with a knowing irony.