In recent decades the dominant image of sex work within movies has been perpetuated by 1990 rom-com Pretty Woman. Earlier more cautionary narratives (Taxi Driver, Working Girls) were superseded within the popular consciousness by an overtly sentimentalized story of an improbable romance between escort and client. With support from a mainstream studio, canny marketing, and a soundtrack album that became one of that year’s best-selling titles this sanitized and deeply problematic film enjoyed a highly profitable run at the box office, was nominated in several categories by the BAFTA, Golden Globes and at the Academy Awards Julia Roberts won an Oscar for Best Actress. In the years since its release British and American films and television have increasingly featured a myriad of fictionalised prostitution chronicles that do not reference the inherent dangers associated with this industry and present character interplay which is an all too obvious riff on the relationship between Pretty Woman‘s core protagonists, True Romance and Shameless are possibly the most instantly recognizable examples of this trend. More recently, the ITV network has broadcast an adaptation of Brooke Magnanti’s blog and confessional memoirs , The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, that was criticised by feminists for glamourising the industry and not placing sufficient emphasis on the risks routinely faced by sex workers. Perhaps due to cultural distinctness or differences in funding mechanisms, contemporary and historical European productions have been less reluctant to shy away from documenting potential endangerment to the self and family as a consequence of prostitution. From the period piece Maison Close, through to Belle de Jour and Christiane F – Wir Kinder vom Banhof Zoo the probable ramifications of a career in this industry have been explored without undue moralizing, mawkishness or melodrama. Continuing in the continent’s tradition of using fictional film to scrutinize this highly contentious issue without recourse to histrionics, François Ozon’s most recent motion picture Jeune & Jolie offers an open narrative with no firm conclusions and a requirement on the audience’s part to fill in the all-important gaps in character arcs.
A pivotal figure in the history of French cinema, Bunuel’s influence looms large throughout Jeune & Jolie in terms of performances, visual style, and casting decisions. Inevitable comparisons to his film Belle de Jour are not without justification. In this more permissive age, it is impossible to recreate the shock experienced by 1960s cinema audiences seeing Catherine Deneuve play a frustrated housewife who is only able to find excitement and fulfillment when she begins a double life as an escort in a discreet brothel. To engender an emotional response Ozon presents a teenage rite of passage as descent into hell over a twelve-month period. Bunuel’s archetype of an impassive figure upon which characters and viewers are able to project their sexual desires is recalled in a movie that features voyeurism, objectification, and gratification as constant themes. During a family holiday, seventeen-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) loses her virginity to a German tourist (Lucas Prisor). A joyless experience, she swiftly distances herself from the boy despite his having already been welcomed by her family. Returning home she embarks on a double life, student and in the afternoons as “Lea” a high-class escort entertaining clients in luxury hotels. Segmented into four seasons, each bookended by a Francois Hardy song, the film’s high culture aspirations are telegraphed by the use of a Rimbaud poem.
Through judicious use of subjective shots and mirrors the director continuously plays with theories of the male gaze in cinema. The emotive subject of teenage prostitution is treated as an intellectual exercise, no explicit statement on this issue is made by the narrative. Gaps in story information compound the feeling that the viewer is required to impose their own interpretations onto the film’s canvas.
An intriguing performance from Marine Vacth transcends any scripting problems. Her character’s motives are unknown and whilst Ozon may have intended to be deliberately obscure, the focus on consequences without the all-important knowledge of how and why Isabelle turned to prostitution dilutes the screenplay’s highly stirring arguments. During casting sessions Catherine Deneuve was considered for a key role but conscious of the possibility that parallels to Belle de Jour might become too obvious an alternative choice was made, Charlotte Ramping whose stately elegance and restrained mournful reading kick-starts the film’s shift into a totally unexpected direction.