Thursday night, Sept. 26, The 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival held its first of three screenings of French film “Young & Beautiful” as part of the World Views program. This film, telling the story of a 17-year-old girl turned prostitute, has a great deal of sexual content but the audience soon realizes that the film is actually quite desexualized and disturbing at times.
How could a film centering around sex and prostitution be desexualized? There are several ways in this particular film. Firstly, the fact that “Young & Beautiful” is about a minor acting as a prostitute is unsettling enough, but when you soon realize that she often caters to senior citizens, it’s hard to imagine anyone making their peace with this or viewing her actions as anything other than disturbing.
Seventeen-year-old Isabelle is often degraded while functioning as a prostitute, and the audience is made a voyeur from the very start as the film opens through the eyes of binoculars at a topless, sunbathing Isabelle. Much in the way that “Showgirls” (1995) becomes desexualized through overexposure of nude women, this attention to voyeurism and blunt sexual conversations within Isabelle’s family set the tone of the film as one that is not meant to play out a fantasy but to reel in audiences on the hollow spirit of prostitution, especially among young girls.
Besides these factors, “Young & Beautiful” is much more about the aftermath of Isabelle’s decision to become a prostitute than her actual time spent as a prostitute. This makes it more of a real story and less of an inappropriate fantasy as we see the fallout within her family as the consequences of her actions come to the forefront.
These consequences, while unsettling, lead the audience to connect more with Isabelle’s mother than Isabelle herself. In fact, the audience knows very little about the protagonist and gains extremely little insight into her character. Viewers are thrown into her story very quickly with no explanation of how or why she got started as a prostitute and minimal exposition or insight into her as a character in general.
Part of this strong disconnect between the audience and Isabelle is due to her cold, aloof character, but it also makes her a poor, unreachable protagonist. It also makes for an unsatisfying conclusion no matter what the outcome because, as so much of the rest of the film does, the conclusion is driven by silence. This can be effective when we have any fragment of insight into the protagonists’ emotions and persona, but sadly we don’t here.
Isabelle’s cold, aloof character is, however, key to the story. It contributes in a great deal to the depiction of prostitution in “Young & Beautiful” and is a driving force in setting the tone of the film. However, it may leave viewers wanting more from a protagonist as the film concludes.
“Young & Beautiful” will run during The Milwaukee Film Festival at The Times Cinema on Oct. 1 at 1:30 p.m. and again at The Oriental Theater on Oct. 8 at 10:30 p.m. Tickets are available online or by visiting the Milwaukee Film Box Office.