It’s hard to make light, or make art, of teenage prostitution. But that’s just what French filmmaker François Ozon has done with his recent film, Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful in English). It’s the story of Isabelle, a Parisian high-schooler who secretly meets and sleeps with strangers in exchange for large sums in hotel rooms. And last week, in a tabloidish twist on this interesting and (interestingly unsexy) film, life seems to have imitated art. In Cannes (which is where Ozon’s film premiered at the Festival in May), two teenage girls, aged 14 and 15, were arrested for having worked—or played—as prostitutes for two months this past spring.
What most shocks, or perhaps just interests, French audiences about both of these cases, fictional and real, is that the girls come from bourgeois backgrounds. They’re not just good girls, they’re from the cultural elite, upper middle class, intellectual-bobo families. In Ozon’s film, she’s a doctor’s daughter and goes to the most prestigious public high school in Paris. News accounts of the Cannes teenagers describe them as highly accomplished students and their families as well-to-do. They could have been good middle-class girls getting a mediocre education in a small town in the provinces whose parents work at the post office, but…who would care?
The contrast between the girls’ social status, between the idea that there’s no imaginable reason any of them would want to escape their gilded lives and the promise of a fulfilling future to which their class and culture naturally entitle them—and the absolute debasement of prostitution is what gives the whole thing a sense of a legitimate narrative. It’s what makes it interesting. Otherwise wouldn’t it simply be teenage girls being paid for the use of their bodies by older male strangers in hotel rooms? Imagine a horny middle-aged businessman having sex with a 14-year-old—your daughter, your neighbor’s daughter, whatever—it’s abject. It’s not hot. It’s not interesting.
But Ozon’s film has been greeted with critical acclaim, and the report of the arrest of the Cannes teenagers with great interest. People are intrigued, not repulsed. For the French it’s more a story of class and culture than (for once) of sex. No one has found any of this repugnant or gross as, perhaps, might have been the case if this were all taking place in the United States, on New York’s Upper West Side or in Boca Raton. There’s mostly just a sense of wonder that these girls—good students, well-behaved daughters from educated families—would have somehow chosen to test the boundaries of authority and adolescence in such a consummately adult way. Like an extravagant game of dress-up, but with real johns and for a fee. Filmic, for sure.
But there is a huge, fundamental difference between the film version and the real version of these teenage prostitute stories. If Ozon’s story is enthralling it is precisely because he produces this heightened contrast between Isabelle’s class and her acts, a highly aestheticized (male) fantasy of innocence willfully drawn to the extreme sexual taboo. The actress playing Isabelle, Marina Vacth, is heart-stoppingly gorgeous (worth seeing the film just for that), all fresh peaches-and-cream sensuality, the perfect French cliché of natural beauty and style, wearing jeans and no make-up, bursting with the erotic potential of her childish curiosity and good breeding.
The two teenagers in Cannes don’t fulfill that fantasy at all. When they were arrested, it was stepping out of a Mercedes convertible in front of a luxury hotel in Cannes (which famously becomes an eldorado for high-end prostitution every year during the film festival), wearing wigs, heavy make-up and high heels. When police searched the home of the car’s driver (a 40-something man who is being investigated for pimping), they found a whole stash of clothes and accessories: stilettos, erotic lingerie, leather gloves, hair-pieces, and sex-toys. It turns out these girls, the real teenagers, weren’t dressed like girls, they were dressed like whores.
When police questioned them as to why they did it, they allegedly said it was “for the fun, for the sex, for the money.” One of the two girls even claimed to have made 50,000 Euros in two days and, according to police, she said she planned on earning enough to get her breasts augmented with the goal, ultimately, of going to the United States to become a porn star. So that’s what she wants to be when she grows up and it’s not because she flunked out of high school or comes from a tough background. One of the teenagers appeared, with her face blurred out, in a sensationalist investigative TV show called Enquête Exclusive, and in response to a detective’s question about her main motive for prostituting herself she replied, “mostly it was for the money—money is my little guilty pleasure.” She didn’t seem to think it needed any further explanation.
These real teenage prostitutes are the pure products not of a French film director’s fantasy, but of a generation of digital natives brought up on the Internet and reality television. They watch porn online after school like another generation watched Little House on the Prairie reruns, and retweet graphic sex pictures for the banal thrill of it. They naturally know their way around the online protocols of anonymity and false identities, at ease with the dichotomy between real life and virtual life—that’s a Facebook generation’s normal life. The stars of today’s globalized teenage culture include Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, sex-tape celebrities with $1500-dollar handbags and rich boyfriends, and no real identity other than celebrity.
In that context, in the life of the average, hyper-connected, affluent teenager with an iPhone and a laptop, craving money for money’s sake, dressing up as women and getting paid for sex in luxury hotels–none of that seems all that unimaginable.
As far as we can tell, for these good girls in Cannes—and this is what I find disconcerting—it doesn’t even seem all that transgressive. It was just fun.