‘All people who love cinema are voyeurs’, according to French film director François Ozon. Is there really anything wrong with that? We’re there to watch, and if our eyes love beauty – the glory of the human face and body – why condemn them? But when that beauty belongs to very young women who take their clothes off and appear to have sex on screen for our entertainment, there comes a point when you wonder if by sitting in the cinema watching, you’re becoming a dirty old pervert. Or at least, that was the way I felt when I watched Young & Beautiful, the latest film from Ozon (Swimming Pool, Under the Sand, 8 Women) about a 17-year-old Parisian schoolgirl who takes up prostitution as a secret hobby.
Like a peeping tom, Ozon first introduces Isabelle (Marine Vacth) through the spying eyes of her little brother’s binoculars. We see her sunbaking topless on one of those pebbly European beaches that make Australians feel superior. Later that night, the painfully skinny and rather sullen-looking (but yes, incredibly beautiful) Isabelle will lose her virginity, without fanfare or romance, to a redheaded German tourist. As he’s thrusting away, she feels herself splitting off, as if she’s watching the action from afar, as a spectator. It’s the only real clue we get as to why, when she returns from her holiday, she sets herself up as a high class call girl, selling sex to men who are old enough to be her grandfather. When she’s eventually discovered by the police, she can’t explain why she’s doing it. Her mother is distraught and her psychologist is puzzled.
The mystery of Isabelle’s motivation need not be fully solved. Why should all behaviour make sense, especially that of impulsive and rebellious teenagers? And the film’s refusal to judge or condemn is fair enough. But what’s creepy is the way it adores the flesh of its sulky and uncommunicative young subject – selling it in the very title and poster art for the movie – and offering no real story, no real understanding, and inviting no empathy. Instead, it’s a very beautiful but vacuous portrait of the oft-naked Vacth – full lips, silky hair and narrow hips – all overlaid with some melancholy French pop songs. It made me squirm.
For a more fully realised and altogether more fascinating film about sex and the teenage girl, check out indie Australian drama 52 Tuesdays, directed by Sophie Hyde (Life in Movement) and performed entirely by a cast of untrained actors. Shot consecutively every Tuesday for a year in Adelaide, the story follows the articulate and funny 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) whose lesbian mother (Del Herbert-Jane) is undergoing gender transition to become a man. Feeling rejected and confused, Billie undergoes her own kind of rebellious sexual discovery, aided by a video camera and a couple of adventurous school pals (Imogen Archer and Sam Althuizen) with whom she forms an unconventional threesome.
Shot in the form of a video diary that traces both the mother’s sex change as well as the teenage girl’s journey, 52 Tuesdays is expertly edited (by Bryan Mason) to create a story that invites us not just to look, but to understand and to feel as well. The time-lapse nature of the experiment is a huge part of its pleasure. We look with fascination as hair grows, breasts disappear, beards are cultivated and discarded, and the very young Cobham-Hervey seems to grow wiser and more wary by the minute. But we’re just as engaged by the emotional questions raised: how can this family work? And is this child-on-the-verge-of-womanhood safe from herself?
The desire to look – at others and at oneself – is taken for granted as a natural and healthy one in 52 Tuesdays. And yet, without giving away too much of the story, it hits home with a strong message about the need to protect the young from themselves. Voyeurism has its limits.
Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne-based film journalist, reviewer and editor.