Film: Empowered Dames

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The tween voyeur is spying on a slim beauty who just took her top off to sunbathe, and she blends right into the landscape of a French beach on a balmy summer day. The opening scene of François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, one of three new releases currently vying for your moviegoing dollar that happen to feature headstrong, thoroughly captivating female protagonists, suggests at first glance a Gallic T & A-speckled teen romp. The movie that follows – sensual, provocative, elegantly lensed – has far more on its mind than the pleasures of the flesh, though those play an important role. It follows the nubile high-schooler as she chooses to take up an eyebrow-raising extracurricular activity: prostitution.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Isabelle (a spellbinding Marine Vacth), on vacation with her contentedly bourgeois mom, stepdad and nosy baby brother (the aforementioned Peeping Tom), is on the edge of 16, and she’s not only discovering her sexuality, but the way that she can use it to wield power over those with whom she chooses to be intimate. She has her sights set on Felix (Lucas Prisor), tall, blonde, lean and interested. She allows herself to be wooed by the soft-spoken, slightly older German lad, but what should have been a pleasurable deflowering doesn’t seem to set her world on fire. She remains cool and impassive throughout the tryst, and to her partner’s puzzlement, acts distant and withdrawn post coitus.

Ozon abruptly jumps forward several months, and we find Isabelle, back in Paris, effortlessly convincing her (predominantly middle-aged) clients that she’s a legal escort. We soon discover she’s quite good at it, and her family’s none the wiser. Cinematographer Pascal Marti makes the unending succession of hotel rooms downright seductive, inviting us to be a fly on the wall for these rendezvous that are business transactions as well as titillating couplings. Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool) stages the client/escort conversations as power plays which find Isabelle alternately asserting her dominance and being outsmarted by johns who can see right through her act.

The interplay between Isabelle’s schoolgirl/call girl identities is so arresting that I’d be lying if I said I wanted her to get caught. Ozon indulges in some family melodrama as Young & Beautiful heads into more familiar territory, but his no-nonsense, nonjudgmental approach to such morally thorny subject matter is precisely the reality check this material needs. Some viewers expecting to have Isabelle’s motivations spelled out for them might wind up becoming frustrated, but it’s fairly evident to this reviewer that a large part of Young & Beautiful‘s appeal – for my money, it’s Ozon’s most accomplished film since his powerful character study Time to Leave (2005) – lies in the writer-director’s refusal to offer facile explanations for what many would perceive as this precocious teen’s irresponsible, reckless behavior. The most thrilling irony of Ozon’s fiercely independent muse: The more inscrutable her actions are, the more alluring she becomes. She’s the driving force behind this spiky bonbon.

Isabelle’s not the only leading lady resorting to the world’s oldest profession at the movies this weekend. The indefatigable, calamity-prone Ewa Cybulska, played by a stellar Marion Cotillard, is willing to do whatever it takes to pursue the American dream. As the titular character in James Gray’s The Immigrant, the Polish citizen, fresh off the boat in Ellis Island circa 1921 alongside baby sis Magda (Angela Sarafyan), runs into a couple of stumbling blocks. Magda, coughing up a storm, is required to stay behind to be treated for her illness, whereas Ewa’s been red-flagged as a “woman of low morals” following an incident during her voyage across the pond. As she’s about to resign herself to being sent back to Europe, she catches the eye of Bruno Weiss (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix), charismatic, heavy-set, entrepreneurial. He swoops in, has a talk with the uniformed fellas in charge, and gives her a one-way ticket to the big, bad city … as long as she agrees to work with him.

“He flies off the handle every now and then,” Ewa is told about her new mentor, and they’re not kidding. Bruno, a vaudeville man, is generous but mercurial, and his temper really flares up after Ewa befriends Emil (Jeremy Renner), aka Orlando the Magician, an illusionist who genuinely takes a shine to her. He’s a ray of sunshine amidst Ewa’s dire circumstances, which eventually do involve selling herself for money. It does seem, however, that Gray, a purveyor of tragic, downbeat stories (Little Odessa, The Yards), has actually listened to the critics who have called him out on the unremittingly grim nature of his work. His portrayal of Jazz-Age New York City burns off the screen as a Darwinian dog-eat-dog cesspool of wayward souls and lost dreams, but it also allows room for humor and even some levity. The crowded streets and multi-cultural denizens that populate this painstakingly recreated world pay loving homage to The Godfather Part II and Once Upon a Time in America, and while it doesn’t quite rise to the level of those screen gems, it marks Gray as a committed filmmaker who continues to evolve and top himself. Which makes it even more maddening that the folks at The Weinstein Company have opted to unceremoniously dump this atmospheric period piece at area theaters without the TLC that it so richly deserves. Catch it on the big screen, the way it ought to be experienced.

Another costume drama that most certainly warrants an appreciative audience, Belle plays like a crowd-pleasing cross-breed of Pride & Prejudice and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with some 18th Century civil-rights-struggle fireworks thrown in for good measure. The film is “based on a true story,” as director Amma Assante clearly and emphatically states from the outset, but that’s a misleading phrase, not only because screenwriter Misan Sagay takes plenty of liberties in telling the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (British TV vet Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Mulatto heiress claimed as a young girl by her Anglo dad, Royal Navy Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), after her mother, a slave, dies. Rather, it’s because the film, didactic and basic when it comes to the subject of race, is considerably more effective as a storybook romance that’s very much aware of the rigid cultural and social norms of the time period.

Called to serve in the West Indies, Capt. Lindsay takes his child to the estate of her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), so that she may be raised alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). The girls become inseparable, even when Dido, who inherits an enviable income but, because of the color of her skin faces limited, if any, marriage prospects, is forced to sit and watch as her cousin, who has no inheritance but considerably better chances at nabbing a husband of appropriate standing, is brought out to society while she’s forced to have dinner by herself. After all, her loved ones say, it wouldn’t be proper to have her sit at the table, would it?

Love comes a-knockin’ for Dido in the form of dashing, idealistic lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid, quite dreamy), a vicar’s son whose abolitionist leanings sets Lord Mansfield’s teeth on edge, even though, as Lord Chief Justice, he’s more fair-minded than he appears. The tentative courtship between these two, frowned upon by Dido’s great-uncle, unfolds as a meeting of minds as well as a deeply felt emotional bond. As such, it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy that I found altogether impossible to resist. Yes, Assante and Sagay want to teach audiences a lesson in racial tolerance and justice, but to their credit, they put their characters before the message, and the simplicity of the storytelling – Belle often comes across as My First Costume Drama – is very much a part of its charm. They have made a lovely film.

Belle is currently out at area theaters. The Immigrant arrives on these shores May 23 at AMC Aventura 24 and the Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale. That same Young & Beautiful opens for business at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com), The Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com) and the Tower Theater (towertheatermiami.com). Who says summer has to be strictly a boys’ playground at the movies?

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