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'Young & Beautiful's' Francois Ozon savors challenges of film

'I need every film to be a challenge,' says 'Young & Beautiful' director Francois Ozon

Though still best known to many in the U.S. for his steamy 2003 thriller "Swimming Pool," French filmmaker François Ozon has maintained a consistent pace of nearly a film a year. He has moved with a smooth, urbane grace across storytelling genres and filmmaking styles, including bracing contemporary dramas, whimsical fables, camp parables and the odd musical.

"I don't have a problem of inspiration," said the Paris-born-and-based Ozon with a laugh on the phone during a recent trip to New York. "I think there are many ideas, many stories to tell."

"Young & Beautiful," opening in Los Angeles on Friday, is yet again something different, an ambiguous character study in which Isabelle, a Parisian high-schooler from a comfortable home and with no apparent troubles, turns to a secret life of high-end prostitution. An unintended emotional bond with one client leads to her being found out and a confrontation with her bewildered mother.

The film's official synopsis calls it simply "The portrait of a 17-year-old girl in 4 seasons and 4 songs," as it features classic songs by French chanteuse Françoise Hardy. With a startling performance by Marine Vacth, a one-time fashion model in her first leading role, the film is by turns a coming-of-age saga and opaque psychological study.

It speaks to the pace of Ozon's filmmaking that as "Young & Beautiful" was being released in territories around the world last fall, he picked up a European Film Award for screenplay for "In the House," his 2012 drama of education and connection. "Young & Beautiful" would in turn go on to be nominated for two Cesar awards, often referred to as France's Oscars, for Vacth as most promising newcomer and Géraldine Pailhas as supporting actress in the role of Isabelle's mother.

"You know, each time I try to be successful enough to do the next movie," Ozon said, noting that "Young& Beautiful" did well for a drama with relatively low star wattage when it was released in France last summer.

"I want to find a real audience," Ozon, 46, added. "So I try to make commercial films. For me doing something commercial doesn't mean that you betray yourself or try to just make money."

From his early short films such as 1996's "A Summer Dress" and his first features such as 1998's "Sitcom" and 1999's "Criminal Lovers," Ozon has been a fixture on the international festival circuit.

He must be doing something right, judging by his cast lists that would be the envy of almost any filmmaker. His 2002 film "8 Women" alone featured such French stars and legends as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardent, Danielle Darrieux, Virginie Ledoyen and early muse Ludivine Sagnier. Other actresses he has worked with include Charlotte Rampling, Jeanne Moreau, Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner. He has worked with an impressive list of actors as well, including Gerard Depardieu, Michael Fassbender, Melville Poupaud, Sam Neill, Louis Garrel and Mathieu Amalric.

Pailhas previously appeared in Ozon's 2004 film "5X2," and she said that while they had not stayed close in the interim, they had remained in touch and that Ozon would make a point of coming to a film screening or theater performance when invited. Such loyalty may explain how he commands such a caliber of performer.

"I think he trusts the actors he chooses," Pailhas said during a recent phone interview. "You never feel insecure in front of him, you always feel you are the right person at the right moment expressing the right emotions."

Written and directed by Ozon, his new film's central question — why does she do it? — goes largely unanswered, leaving audiences to decide for themselves what is behind Isabelle's decisions, whether it is a dangerous act of teenage rebellion or assured self-possession.

"She doesn't explain, she doesn't apologize, she just tries to live what she feels," Vacth said during the press conference for the film when it premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

"There are many reasons for that behavior," said Ozon, "but I wanted to show adolescence like a mystery. She doesn't have the words to express what she feels. That's why I decided not to give her one [single] problem. It would have been too easy. I wanted her to have something more complex and ambiguous."

The character (and audiences) does get some charge out of her choice of after-school profession, though like the tone of the film overall it is muted and enigmatic. A series of late-afternoon rendezvous in hotel rooms, in which Isabelle arrives in sleek outfits befitting an upscale executive and leaves in a teenager's jeans and shapeless jacket, finds her trying on personalities like a fresh set of clothes.

"I wanted to show she has a double life and is playing a part," Ozon said. "She's very excited about the realization of her secret life. For me the character needs that, the pleasure she has is not in the sex scenes, it's to escape and be someone else. She's excited about all the things around the sex, not exactly by the sex."

Pailhas has two children of her own, including a teenage daughter close in age to the character of Isabelle, so the role forced her to think about her own parenting methods.

"I'm very different from this mother," she said with some sense of relief. "I understand her really well and have a lot of empathy for her, but I would never act like her. She hides her eyes from everything, she doesn't know who her kids are, that they are growing and are now people of their own, that they are not just hers."

Ozon is not surprisingly already moving forward. He is finishing his next film "The New Girlfriend," starring popular actor Romain Duris, for a fall release.

"I need to surprise myself," he said. "Doing a film a year I don't want to repeat myself or have the feeling of always doing the same thing. I need every film to be a challenge. So each time I try to go in some new direction."

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