[Note: It’s pretty much impossible to write about The New Girlfriend without giving away a central twist in the plot. This review, therefore, contains spoilers.]
François Ozon’s latest is adapted from a Ruth Rendell story, so you’d be forgiven for expecting a murder mystery, particularly when the rug-pulling opening shot reveals that a beautiful young woman has died prematurely. Yet this is a film that constantly wrong-foots the expectant viewer, and although there is an air of mystery during the first half that could be described as Hitchcockian, the fact is it quickly turns into a more playful drama concerned with matters such as sexuality, gender roles and parenting (even if Ozon occasionally leads us to believe we’re about to witness something menacing, perhaps even a cold-blooded killing). Those are all subjects you might expect to find in a Hitchcock film, I guess, and Ozon even shares a little of Hitch’s flair for light, comedic touches, too, but this film is – tonally, at least – a jumble, and I’m not sure whether it works, even though it’s clearly the director’s intention.
The focus is primarily on two people. First there’s Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), the best friend of Laura (Isild Le Besco), the girl that we saw in a coffin at the beginning. A well-constructed opening montage details the pair’s close friendship through their teenage years into early adulthood and marriage; Laura has a child and dies shortly thereafter, leaving Claire heartbroken. Sharing her grief is Laura’s husband David (Romain Duris), who is facing up to the task of raising his daughter alone. Yet Laura’s death ends up being a catalyst for both of them: Claire discovers that David likes to dress as a woman, which he states is for the baby, so that she can grow up with a mother and a father, though of course it’s really for David’s own pleasure. After Claire’s initial (and overplayed) shock and horror, she gradually realises she likes spending time with David’s leggy alter ego Virginia – who has a nice line in the kind of 1950s clothing that you might otherwise find in a David Lynch film or a Todd Hido photograph (or indeed the 1950s). A mutual attraction develops, and thus begins an affair, of sorts, albeit one that remains unconsummated while Claire addresses her own sexuality. David’s transvestism forces Claire to address her own preferences; the narrative suggests she has repressed a liking for women, though it’s never explicitly clear whether she is falling for Virginia – who is an obvious surrogate for Laura, even wearing the same clothes and with a similar haircut – or David the straight cross dresser; it’s a distinction worth making.
Ozon uses changes in the character’s costumes – Claire’s as well as David/Viriginia’s – to signify the sexual re-awakening of the two characters, as well as the empowerment both feel after spending time in each other’s company, while reds gradually seep into the movie to suggest increasing levels of passion and/or sexual tension. A pivotal scene for both characters takes place in a gay club in front of a torch singer, with Claire finding a degree of comfort in the surroundings and David/Virginia feeling inspired by the performance, which includes a fellow transvestite stripping down and proudly revealing their torso. Both Demoustier and Duris turn in good performances, the former actually doing a pretty good job of negotiating the changes in tone, and the latter tries hard to illustrate his character’s feminine side through more than just clothes and wigs. As with Eddie Redmayne’s character Lili in this year’s The Danish Girl there are numerous scenes in which Duris’s eyes glaze over as Virginia strokes various items of women’s clothing, though in comparison Ozon’s film feels freer, and much less stuffy than Tom Hooper’s hit, which is perhaps unsurprising given that it’s not weighed down by the pressures of having to adequately address any historical significance. Perhaps the biggest shame is that the locations used here – whether we’re talking grand houses, nightclubs or even tennis clubs – feel so sterile, and dull, though that at least ensures focus on the characters, and the changes they experience.
Directed by: François Ozon.
Written by: François Ozon. Based on The New Girlfriend by Ruth Rendell.
Starring: Anaïs Demoustier, Romain Duris, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco.
Cinematography: Pascal Marti.
Editing: Laure Gardette.
Music: Philippe Rombi.
Running Time: 105 minutes.