Something happens to François Ozon's people when they get near the water. In the prolific and provocative French filmmaker's 1997 almost-feature-length debut, See the Sea, a drifter insinuates herself into the life of a mother and child at an island cottage. In 2000's Under the Sand, a husband disappears while taking a swim, leaving his wife, Charlotte Rampling, adrift. And Rampling, playing a mystery writer, dives into a puzzling dream in 2003's Swimming Pool.

Ozon's Young & Beautiful, his 15th feature, begins at a seaside getaway, where 16-year-old Isabelle - long-limbed, sad-eyed Marine Vacth - vacationing with her little brother (Fantin Ravat), her mother (Géraldine Pailhas), and her stepfather (Frédéric Pierrot), loses her virginity to a German boy. It's a pivotal moment, of course, but it sets her on a strange path.

Returning to Paris, having celebrated her 17th birthday at summer's end, Isabelle becomes a prostitute. She meets men in posh hotels, takes their money, does what they ask of her. Vacth's face is blank, she's hard to read, but you can see her Isabelle slowly becoming more intent, more committed. Her parents have no idea - she meets her clients in the afternoon, when she's ostensibly studying with her classmates. She returns home, secretes the wads of 100 euro notes away in her closet, sits down for dinner.

There's a long tradition of films about prostitutes, and French films about prostitutes, and certainly Ozon's melancholy portrait is of the genre. But the director is interested in exploring what it means to be an adolescent right now, too, and how this particular adolescent, Isabelle, does - and doesn't - fit in. She is not driven by money (her family is well-off), and plenty of boys are interested in her.

Instead, she goes off with men her father's age, and older. Ozon hints that even her stepfather, and then the therapist hired to counsel her, wouldn't have to be pushed far to find themselves on a crisp duvet with this girl.

Young & Beautiful is divided into four chapters, the four seasons, with a vintage Françoise Hardy pop song - jangly, wistful - for each. The French chanteuse was young and beautiful once, too.

The film's last shot is of Isabelle, alone in a hotel room, catching her image in the mirror. Who knows where she goes from here?



Young & Beautiful ***  (Out of four stars)

Directed by François Ozon. With Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Fantin Ravat. In French with subtitles. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (nudity, sex, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.