In his Guardian review of Jeune et Jolie, a story about a 17-year-old schoolgirl who voluntarily turns to prostitution after an underwhelming first sexual experience, Peter Bradshaw claims that “Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour was attacked as a movie for middle-aged men; that charge could be made far more powerfully against Jeune & Jolie”. I disagree entirely, and don’t believe that Bradshaw’s claim stands up to scrutiny.
While lesbians of my acquaintance derided Blue is the Warmest Colour for its male-gaze treatment of lesbian sexuality, a quick glance at metacritic will tell you that its most favourable reviews all come from male critics (including Peter Bradshaw himself).
Meanwhile, Jeune et Jolie attracts several lukewarm-to-poor reviews, not least from Mark Kermode – a critic for whom I have much respect, but who is indisputable a middle-aged man – who accuses it of being fatuous and vacant. On the other hand, many of its defenders are women, including Leslie Felperin for Variety and Larushka Ivan- Zadeh for Metro.So why do women (including myself) seem to like Jeune et Jolie more than men? I think there’s a clue in the opening shot: the film’s heroine, spied through binoculars by her brother. Ozon’s previous, ‘Dans la maison’, was also a study in voyeurism and male sexuality, but in that film his (male) teenage protagonist had agency. Here, the male gaze is reframed as something immature and incestuous, without any real power.
After that first shot, the point of view very much transfers to Isabella herself, as she explores her blossoming sexuality – she is in nearly every scene, and her subjectivity is apparent. The truth is that throughout the movie, Isabelle holds all of the cards, more or less makes all of her decisions for herself – and when this isn’t true, the power lies in the hands of another woman (a female police officer; her best friend; her mother; Charlotte Rampling’s character). To quote Sylvia Plath, Isabelle “eats men like air”.
Ozon also neatly addresses, and dismisses, the inane phallocentric ‘daddy issues’ interpretation of Isabelle’s behaviour. Although her father is absent, it is her relationship with her mother which seems to cause her the most emotional distress.
Potential ‘saviours’ (all of them male) pop up throughout the narrative – perhaps some validation from her stepfather, or therapy from a male psychologist, or a new, age-appropriate boyfriend will set her back on the straight and narrow? But nothing sticks – until we meet Alice, played by Charlotte Rampling. Her husband was one of Isabelle’s ex-clients, and she sees herself in Isabelle’s melancholy. It is through her encounter with Alice that Isabelle finds peace – or perhaps finds herself again, after having become dissociated during the loss of her virginity.
I’d posit, then, that Jeune et Jolie makes heterosexual men uncomfortable for several reasons: because they feel manipulated into voyeurism. Because there is a lack of powerful male characters for them to see themselves in. Because its attitude towards masculinity is ambivalent at best. And because a man is neither the root of nor the solution to the protagonist’s problems. In short, it replicates a viewing experience that women are very used to indeed.
Photograph by François Ozon, Eric and Nicolas Altmayer, who hold the copyright.