There have been classics of the past using the titillating effect of having a central character being a purveyor of the world’s oldest profession. These movies, of course, to survive the test of time, had to possess more than disrobed bodies engaging in the act. They had to resonate for other reasons as well – for plenty of simply ‘doing it’ can be had on-line at home if that is your cup of tea and would eventually get to be a tad boring in a cinema house. It takes far more than that to drag me out, as did two offerings with the central premise of selling sex in recent weeks. Would they possess what made memorable entities of such fare as Catherine Deneuve in ‘Belle de Jour’, Jane Fonda in ‘Klute’, Richard Gere in ‘American Gigolo’, John Voight in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ or Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman’? Then there was the moderately successful Aussie tele series ‘Satisfaction’ that lasted three seasons on our little screens.
Not that I was disappointed with the two that I viewed, but I doubt if they will have the staying power of those referred to above. John Turturro’s ‘Fading Gigolo’ and Francois Ozon’s ‘Young and Beautiful’, nonetheless, although very different beasts from each other, have had sound critical praise and were certainly worth the effort. They both possessed a degree of sexual activity and nudity, particularly the latter, but had much more going for them. I saw ‘Young and Beautiful’ at the cinema’s first showing for the day and was the only male present. The other attendees were a group of old darlings of my mother’s age who weren’t in the least fazed by the frank goings-on on the screen. I had no need to feel uncomfortable in their presence.
Now imagine, if you will, that you are an actor of some note but wouldn’t be the first choice on anyone’s list as a romantic lead, let alone a Gere-like figure who would naturally draw women to take off their clothes and pay for some horizontal delights. No you, John Turturro, would not immediately come to mind. So, perhaps feeling left out, with father-time a-ticking to be in any way credible in such a role, Turturro obviously saw the need to strike immediately rather than wait and hope. What should JT do, then, to realise his goal? Why, being a fellow of catholic skills, he would first write a plausible screenplay in which to cast himself as the lead, sign himself on to direct and then use a shared barber to convince Woody Allen to participate. The old hand would give his project the necessary gravitas and pulling power for the monied interests to invest. And he has pulled it off quite well. It’s more than a vanity project – it’s a darn good visual experience.
With the streets of Brooklyn casting a burnished, honeyed glow to match its brownstones, the film sees Allen doing as he has done for years. He has his usual patter down pat, but he is more discerning with it in this role as the pimp for Turturro’s character, Virgil Harris. Allen revels as the gloriously named Dan Bongo. His usual nervous carping wouldn’t cut the mustard here. No, this is Turturro’s project, the rewards of which is that he gets to bed some gorgeous women of a certain age. Still sexy, in a mature way, Sharon Stone at one stage seems set to repeat her ‘Basic Instinct’ moment with her glorious pins. Doesn’t. For a bit of eye candy there is Columbian bombshell Sofia Vengara, but the main focus is soon on that gap-tooth delight, Vanessa Paradis. She plays the repressed ultra-Jewish goddess Avril. Under Virgil’s guidance she soon throws off her sexual shackles, even if Liev Schreiber, playing a sort of orthodox Jew cop, is silently in love with her. He is determined to keep her on the extreme straight and narrow. Who will attain her favour in the end – the gigolo or the cop?
This is a bit of a caper, but in the main a quietly sensitive one. Despite his limitations in the looks department, Harris takes to his role as gigolo like a duck takes to water and it seems for him the money is soon secondary – despite Bongo’s best efforts to make it the central motivator. It is a deliciously appealing way to spend ninety minutes or so, as well as providing an entry into two worlds largely foreign to the average Joe. – Jewishness and providing sex for money.
The latter is precisely what Marine Vacth spends most of her time doing in ‘Young and Beautiful’. If nudity offends, then this is not the movie for you – although how anyone could be offended by this young actress’ blooming body would be beyond this scribe’s comprehension. More troubling was how it was salivated over by a procession of older men for the purposes of the narrative. The seventeen year old hooker does manage to develop some feelings for one of their number, played by Johan Leysen, with this forming one of the narrative drivers of the piece. The other thread is just why a girl still at school would be motivated to proceed on such a course when money is again seemingly secondary. Her earnings are simply stashed, but when the family finds out her vocational proclivities all hell breaks loose. Will they be able to cure her of her ‘addiction’?
This effort comes from a director, Ozon, who is one of the great purveyors of what makes French movie making so special. His oeuvre is always thought provoking, with this being in the same league. It is not the customary explanation that he provides for the actions of Vacth’s Isabelle – that of exploitation. She is strangely willing to be exploited – is addicted to it and it is an intriguing performance by the actress. For the most part she is disengaged from the sexual ‘treats’ she performs. Her little brother, conversely, takes an over-active interest in proceedings. All this is typically Ozon with this offering falling short of his best – especially ‘The Swimming Pool’ where he again glories in the body of a young actress, this time that belonging to Ludivine Sagnier, as well as that of veteran Charlotte Rampling. She has an affecting cameo in this too. Again, for those who appreciate quality art house product, this somewhat disconcerting peep into the lives of the French middle-class is still, nevertheless, worth the ticket price..
So there you have it. Sex for sale will continue to be a source of interest for film makers for many reasons, some of which could possibly be predominately voyeuristic. Still, with these two there are other layers that would prevent that finger being pointed in the direction of Turturro and Ozon.
Official site ‘Fading Gigolo’ = http://fadinggigolo-movie.com/
Trailer ‘Young and Beautiful’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzSJ5mijWyA