Art house film has always had a problematic relationship with female sexuality. Though art house directors are far more likely to construct their films around strong female characters than their Hollywood counterparts, their engagement with these characters’ sexualities is often limited to stripping an actress naked and posing her in a series of titillating tableaux such as those found in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Colour. The further a female character ventures from the realms of male fantasy, the more likely it is that her sexuality will be turned against her and used as a sign of encroaching madness, alienation or spiritual collapse. In art house film, sad men may become murderers but sad women will always become prostitutes.
The tragedy of problematic narratives is that they frequently outlive the social attitudes that first informed them. For example, while the films of Luis Bunuel may have been informed by the remnants of his Jesuitical education, the phrases and characters he helped to develop in films like Belle de Jour passed into common usage and came to form part of the basic vocabulary of art house film. Used and revisited for decade after decade, the character of the fallen woman is now so familiar to art house audiences that directors no longer feel the need to spell out why promiscuous women are sad women… they just show us a female character having loads of sex and allow us to fill in the blanks. We have been trained through repetition and this training followed us out of the cinema and into our daily lives meaning that, without ever having been subjected to an argument about the evils of promiscuity, our first reaction to promiscuous women is to assume that there is something terribly wrong with them.
The alternative to allowing our culture to train us is to question the values embedded in stock cinematic phrases and champion works that set out to subvert stock phrases and use them to draw our attention to the sexism and racism that is perpetuated by our own intellectual laziness. Thankfully, while the 2013 Cannes jury was content to give the biggest prize in art house film to a work that presented sexually empowered women as hollow vessels and childlike victims, another director in competition set out to pick a fight with the myth of the fallen woman. The director in question is Francois Ozon and his film is Jeune et Jolie.
The opening half of Jeune et Jolie is a maze of tired and sexist cinematic phrases. Set in one of those archetypal French holiday homes where kids enjoy enormous amounts of freedom while their attractive parents serve dinners at long tables and then relax amidst wine and cigarettes, the film revolves around a teenaged girl named Isabelle (Marine Vacth). Young, beautiful and yet somehow unworldly, Isabelle approaches her burgeoning sexuality with a surprising level of emotional detachment. We see her flirting with boys on the beach and we see her lining up a beautiful German boy as the one to take her virginity but when asked by her mother if she’d like to invite the German boy to dinner, Isabelle replies that he’s too much of a cunt. When the German boy tries to spend time with Isabelle outside of their date, Isabelle is cold to the point of outright hostility. This was not about summer romance but about satisfying a physiological need. To drive this message home, Ozon cuts to Isabelle reciting a poem about love with a gloriously dead-eyed expression.
Once back in Paris, Isabelle puts her details on a dating site and begins having sex with a string of older men who are only too happy to pay her for her time. While some of these men are sweet and others are terrifying, Isabelle keeps making dates and getting fucked for reasons that are never made entirely clear. Ozon shoots these sex scenes with an affectless eroticism that perfectly captures Isabelle’s impassive expression. We know that she is meeting with these men and that she is enjoying the sex, but we do not see happiness on her face. We know that these scenes are shot in a way that embraces the male gaze, but they are not in the least bit titillating. Vacth’s languid expression combines with the detached cinematography of Pascal Marti to conjure a veil of ambiguity that demands to be drawn back: What is Isabelle getting out of these sordid encounters? Does she need money? Is she unhappy? Is she actually enjoying them?
Halfway through the film, Isabelle is having sex with one of her older lovers when his heart gives out. Terrified, Isabelle grabs her money and runs away only for the police to track her down. After confronting Isabelle’s mother with proof that her daughter has become an underage sex worker, the police search Isabelle’s room and find a huge stash of unspent money along with her online details and proof of the full extent of her activities. Horrified, shamed and confused, Isabelle’s mother uses violence and emotional pressure to force Isabelle to explain herself but when the girl refuses to show much contrition, they enlist a psychiatrist who also fails to elicit much of an emotional response. The closest Isabelle gets to breaking down is shedding a single tear over the old man who died beneath her… she cries because he was nice.
The film’s third beat is nothing less than a vicious assault on the myth of the fallen woman. Having spent half an hour establishing the extent of Isabelle’s sexual activities, Ozon systematically dismantles all of the received cinematic wisdom about why a woman would become a sex worker: Isabelle was not abused, she was not beaten, she was not mistreated, she was not in need of money, she was not addicted to drugs, and her emotional reactions to things are entirely normal. Isabelle is not a fallen woman, she is a woman who is in complete possession of her own sexuality and sleeps with older men for no reason other than because she enjoys it. She is a young woman who knows precisely what it is that she is doing.
After being discovered, Isabelle endures the attempts at parental discipline and the absurd reactions of older women who suddenly treat her as a threat to their marriages. Allowed out of the house by her parents, Isabelle goes to a party where she allows herself to be seduced by a very sweet young man from school. Initially, this relationship goes quite well and Isabelle’s parents embrace the young man to the point where they are happy to have him sleep over in their daughter’s bed. However, while Isabelle maintains that she quite likes the young man, she also recognises that a typical teenage relationship is not for her and so she casually dumps him and drifts back to the Internet. This plot development allows Ozon to attack another great unspoken shibboleth of European art house film, namely that everything will be alright as long as you limit yourself to the demands of bourgeois culture. Isabelle dumping her well-meaning boyfriend is reminiscent of the ending of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning where the shambolic tramp is ‘saved’ from drowning and set on the path to middle-class bliss only to abandon this life by jumping in the water in heading for freedom. By transferring his attack from the myth of the fallen woman to the myth that everyone yearns to be middle class, Ozon is recognising that these myths are used to police female sexuality and that neither of them stand up to close scrutiny.
The film ends with a magnificent scene in which Isabelle meets with the widow of her favourite lover. Played by Charlotte Rampling, the widow relaxes into an impassive expression similar to that of Isabelle. Dismissive of middle-class myths, the widow explains that she learned to accept her husband’s infidelities in much the same way as she would the personal failings in any person she loves. She then goes on to say how she envies Isabelle’s courage and wishes that she had followed through on her fantasies of having meaningless sex for money when she still could. As with Isabelle, these are not the words of a depressed or fallen woman but the words of a person who has come to terms with their sexuality and come to realise the oppressive limitations of our culture’s sexual mores. Isabelle responds to the widow’s advances and seems more than happy for the pair to have sex but the widow leaves before this happens. A rejection of middle class attitudes to sex does not necessarily entail a rejection of heterosexuality, but it certainly makes that option available to those who feel that way inclined.
There are a couple of interesting biographical details to note about the creation of this film:
Firstly, while Jeune et Jolie works beautifully with a female character, the film was originally conceived with a male protagonist in mind. The reason for this is that Ozon reportedly wanted to make a film about adolescence as a period in which one feels bold and considered having this boldness manifest itself in a boy’s rejection of hetero-normativity and desire to sleep with older men. This phantom alternate version of the film invites comparisons between the journeys of straight women and gay men when they both choose to move beyond middle-class sexual mores but it also poses the question of how different cultures perceive sex work.
Secondly, while the debate surrounding gay marriage has focused our attention on GLBT people who conform to bourgeois expectations and choose to settle down into more-or-less monogamous relationships, there are corners of the gay community that resent the idea that the increasing acceptance of homosexuality has come at the price of marginalising the people who have never felt comfortable in relationship structures developed to suit the needs of breeders. As a gay man, Ozon would doubtless have been aware of this tension not least because Jacques Nolot (one of his long-term cinematic collaborators) has devoted his directorial career to exploring the hinterlands of non-bourgeois LGBT relationships. For example, in La Chatte a Deux Tetes Nolot took what could have been a bleak or titillating film about a porno cinema and turned it into an examination of a space in which the normal laws of desire and emotion appear to be suspended… except of course that the cinema invariably follows you home. In Avant Que J’Oublie, Nolot explores the aftermath of a long-term gay relationship and the tensions between the legally protected family of the deceased and the friends and lovers who had both supported the deceased and thrived on his generosity.
One of the most depressing things about the rise of YA and the infantilisation of cinematic spaces is that while films aimed at young people naturally focus upon youthful relationships; the range of relationships on display is ridiculously narrow. How many films position their characters in love triangles and conclude with the main protagonist realising that they love one character more than another and agreeing to spend the rest of their lives with them? These types of complaints are now the lifeblood of Tumblr but while I am extremely sympathetic to the complaint that mainstream film and TV fail to reflect the diverse nature of human sexuality, I am resistant to the idea that this problem can be solved simply by including more LGBT characters or including the odd bisexual character in an otherwise heterosexual love triangle.
In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues against the idea that European society has a tradition of repressing sexual matters and denying the existence of alternate sexualities. In fact, Foucault suggests that post-Reformation European society has been absolutely obsessed with sex because of the widespread belief that understanding the truth of sexuality will help us to understand the truth about human nature. What people often construe as expanding our understanding of human sexuality is actually little more than expanding the number of pigeonholes that people can be forced into. For Foucault, the impetus behind these mapping expeditions is not more freedom or less repression but greater power as such taxonomies invariably wind up being used by the state in much the same way as racial taxonomies are used to persecute the racially impure and psychiatric taxonomies are used to persecute epistemological dissenters. Even if we allow that Western states are unlikely to start shipping asexual people off to re-education camps, the ambiguities of categorisation are evident in Facebook’s recent decision to offer their users fifty different gender-related categories. On the one hand, this type of recognition must feel empowering to people identifying with non-conventional gender categories but is Facebook really interested in empowering its users or in obtaining ever-more precise data that could then be sold on to advertisers?
Foucault ends The History of Sexuality by arguing that the desire for accurate sexual categories is born of the desire to understand and thereby control human life. While these state and corporate-sanctioned identities may legitimise people’s needs and desires, the process of legitimisation cuts both ways as it is impossible to label oneself without also making oneself subject to the social expectations associated with that label. Jeune et Jolie is a fascinating and important film as it explores the binding nature of human sexuality and how even middle-class straight women can feel the weight of social expectation the second they step outside the narrow boundaries of the socially acceptable. The great thing about Jeune et Jolie is not just that it shows a young woman exploring her sexuality on her own terms, it is that it allows that exploration to happen whilst fully accepting the uncertainty, ambiguity and impermanence that lurks at the heart of human sexuality. Jeune et Jolie pointedly refuses to diagnose Isabelle and in so doing reminds us of the possibility of living free of even self-imposed social expectation.
Interesting read. You touch on a lot of topics in this review. Although, I probably shouldn’t refer to it as a review. I got sick of what are labeled “reviews” years ago, as they lacked critical analysis and were more like a consumer valuation of a media product — book, movie, music, etc. I had begun to believe that critical analysis was dead.
Then I discovered blogs such as yours and once again enjoy criticism.
I don’t have time to write up the reply your essay warrants, so I’ll just jot down a few thoughts.
Regarding women in indie films: Years ago, my wife and I went to a prominent indie film festival. Among the movies we saw was an odd film called “Tuvalu.” I can’t remember the details of the plot, but it seemed to be inspired by old silent films. There was a hero, a villain, a damsel in distress having an adventure in some dream-like, stormy, atmospheric town that (for some reason I can’t remember) was being overrun by flood waters.
The visuals were captivating, and, while it wasn’t a silent film, there was little dialogue and an emphasis on ambient sounds — the padding of running feet, the squeaking of wrenches on pipes; it all made for a strangely interesting scene.
At the end of the film, which probably should have been a short rather than a long movie, we gathered with a group of film buffs to talk about what we saw. Everyone was delighted by the film. I thought it was long, but interesting to look at. My wife thought it was despicable. She went on to explain that she thought it was sickening that every time a male character went outside into the cold elements, he meticulously put on extravagant gear to protect himself from the wind and rain. The woman, on the other hand, was forever running around the cold, wet landscape in a wispy skirt that, of course, clung to her body like a second skin.
I thought it remarkable that nobody else in the group, including the other women, had noticed this rather obvious detail. All of us university-educated, professionally trained, culturally astute individuals had been conditioned by indie film to accept the hypersexualized portrayal of women (as long as it was done in a cool, edgy movie). And I’m sure we all considered ourselves good feminists.
The second remarkable moment was the reaction of these other people to my wife’s take on the film. They were angry. It was as if they got pissed off because my wife revealed their complicity in an oppressive presentation of a woman, as well as their ignorance of their complicity.
I should also note that my wife was upset, almost in tears, because of how the woman in the movie was portrayed, and, I suppose, the audience’s blindness to this portrayal.
I’d love to comment more on your essay, but I’ve got to go.
Thanks very much for your kind comments, I’m glad you enjoy my writing :-)
I’ve actually seen Tuvalu and I know precisely the phenomenon that you’re talking about as I’ve been experiencing it quite a lot lately.
The striking thing about feminist approaches to film and popular culture is that once you start seeing gender issues in culture, it’s almost impossible to stop doing so. I’ve recently revisited a number of films that I’ve enjoyed in the past and just gone ‘Nope… too racist/sexist/homophobic for me’.
I also know about the anger as this is one of those areas where you realise quite how little control you have over what goes on in your head. Our culture trains us to accept certain ideas by simple repetition… as I said, you see enough films with a sad sex worker and you eventually connect the dots by yourself and assume that all female sex workers are necessarily miserable or spiritually dead. However, while our culture trains us to make these assumptions on an unconscious level, we also learn that you shouldn’t consciously make those kinds of assumptions. Being called out for being sexist/racist/homophobic is deeply humiliating and more than a little scary as your own incoherence is revealed: You think you’re one thing but your words and actions reveal that you are in fact something else, something horrible.
I think I’m better than I was on these kinds of issues, but it really is a struggle. It’s like trying to deprogram yourself.
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