Jeune & Jolie – ‘Young & Beautiful’ in English – is the French independent film that picked up a Palme d’Or nomination at this year’s Cannes.
It follows the story of Isabella, a Parisian teenager who decides to become a high-class prostitute for no discernible reason – she’s from a loving family, has no need for money and isn’t shown to be in any way abused or mentally unwell.
On the one hand, it’s an enjoyably provocative dissection of middle class values, encapsulated in Isabella’s horrified parents and our own incredulity at her actions. On the other, it feels like a curiously male fantasy of a young women’s burgeoning sexuality – particularly when she finds pleasure in the arms of one of her elderly punters.
But the reason the film is likely to have grabbed your attention up until now is lead actress Marine Vacth, whose naked, dishevelled image gazes inscrutably upwards from the movie’s promotional poster. Not since Audrey Tatou’s ridiculously deep brown eyes appeared plastered on tube stations and bus stops to advertise Amelie have so many men stopped in their tracks to consider the merits of attending a French art house movie.
In every way possible, from the movie’s opening frame to its last, Vacth is memorizing. She plays Isabella with a self-contained thoughtfulness and just a dash of hubris, somehow making her inexplicable actions believable and giving the film a depth it doesn’t fully deserve.
And then there is her beauty.
Writer/director François Ozon has said he cast Vacth – a model with only a handful of small acting roles to her name – partly because: "I could only make the film if I had an actress who was fascinating to look at[…] it had to be an actress that the viewer, and myself, wanted to look at – almost as you'd look at an insect.”
By that criteria, he made the casting choice of the decade. The 22-year-old spends much of the film naked, but it’s her face you can’t stop staring at. In person, Vacth is no less astonishing. Perfect symmetrical features. Large, sad, grey-green eyes. Lips you could leap off. If she were described in fiction, you'd dismiss her character as idealised fantasy, if she were painted during the Renaissance, you’d assume the artist was flattering a patron’s daughter under the threat of death.
Sat on one leg in a big, comfy-looking jumper at the opposite end of sofa – less than an arm’s reach away – she speaks in Paris accent so soft, I worry the Dictaphone between us might not pick her up.
Her answers are courteous, but pensive and short – sometimes, if I’m honest, uninterested – whether it's about her career, her life, her tastes in art or the world outside. The language barrier is a factor, but you sense she is this way anyway: insular in a way that makes interacting with the outside world, particularly prying journalists, an uncomfortable change in pace.
“When I read the script, I felt empathy for Isabella, and so I wanted to play that character,” she says.
“But like you I asked: ‘why’? Why is she doing this?' But sometimes, I guess, we do things we don’t understand.”
One thing Vacth has little interest in understanding is her own career. She has, she says, no ambition beyond “being able to do the things I want to do”. She says moving from modelling to acting was just "another experience”, making it sound like taking a trip to Iceland for the weekend.
It’s refreshing, in a way, to meet someone in Vacth’s position who doesn’t feel they have to justify their good fortune by alluding to how much they’ve always wanted it, and how hard they had to work – even though the latter must be true.
Her passage into acting sounds seamless, just like her accession in the world of modeling (after being discovered in a H&M shop at 14, she went on to take over from Kate Moss as face of YSL’s Parisienne perfume).
“I didn’t think I had anything to prove going from being a model to an actress. I knew some people were waiting to have something negative to say about it. But it didn’t feel like this big transition. I didn’t want to be an actress any more than I wanted to be model – it just happened.”
If that sentence is enough to make the blood rush of struggling actresses the world over, Vacth isn’t exactly lapping up the perks either. What makes her happy, she says, is spending time with her family (like Isabella, she has one brother), being out in nature and reading.
The fame game – with its carousel of glamorous parties and sitting in hotel rooms talking to strangers about yourself – is something she endures rather than relishes, admitting she found all the attention at Cannes "exhausting".
“[Fame] is part of it. I’ve been promoting this film since May. I didn’t realise it would be like this, but I am just doing what I have to do. It’s a curious thing.
“People do recognise me sometimes in France, because the movie has received a lot of attention there. But I think people can quickly forget who you are.”
If there is a trace of wishful thinking in that idea, it’s echoed in her view of London, where she's staying for a few days and has been before.
“I like this city. It feels like no one is looking at each other. It feels more open and accepting than Paris, with less tension.”
If Jeune & Jolie becomes the hit foreign film of the year, I wonder whether she’ll always be able to say that about the capital.
But for now, she nods with slight relief that our time is up, pulls both feet up and reclines back in her big jumper, already contemplating the view outside the window.
I think of what she told me when I asked for the best piece of career advice she'd ever been given – "keep a lot of things private" – as I walk away from the most beautiful woman I've never met.