François Ozon is best known for finding darkness in the undergrowth, getting under the skin of his characters and audiences and bringing them as close to the edge as possible – pushing them into the woods before bringing them out anew. Well, his latest feature, The New Girlfriend is both the same and very different. Whilst The New Girlfriend is a much lighter and often more breezy film than his previous outings, it nonetheless is no more important, satisfying and boundary pushing than Swimming Pool, In The House & 8 Women. Based upon the short story by Ruth Rendell with some very significant changes, Ozon’s latest story stars Romain Duris as never seen before opposite Anaïs Demoustier in a tale, which frankly and openly discusses sexuality, gender and emotion in a way so rarely seen on screen.
What Ozon so wonderfully evokes in The New Girlfriend is something close to the earlier work of Pedro Almodovar; it’s flashy, colourful, funny and fabulous, but never forgetting what it is trying to explore or tell the audience. The film begins with a montage sequence, going through the life of Claire (played by Demoustier when she is an adult) and her friend Laura (played by Isild Le Besco as an adult), they are besties forever and do everything together even finding boyfriends and then husbands. But things take a sad turn when Laura dies after the birth of her first child, leaving Claire heart broken but having made a promise to look after Laura’s child and husband, David (Duris). The problem is David has a secret, something he has kept hidden from Claire and her husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) the entire time they have known each other.
The New Girlfriend is a film of mirrors; from the use of music, to the situations that the characters find themselves in and it is a film that cleverly and uniquely pushes the characters to the edge – somewhere they could never imagine finding themselves. David’s secret is that he has a penchant for dressing up in women’s clothes, which of course could come as a shock if you’d only ever known him as your best friend’s husband. Suddenly Claire’s life is thrown into free fall as she has so quietly balance her life with her loving husband with her secret friendship with David’s alter ego, Virginia. But as this is an Ozon film, the path doesn’t unfold smoothly and Claire is immediately let wondering over her own sexuality and whether the type of relationship she is having with David/Virginia is in fact an affair of some sort.
Where Ozon works best is his riffing of several different genres together, he manages to mould together a film that is funny, dramatic, emotional and absorbing. There is tension in the eyes of the central three as Gilles questions more and more of what his wife is up to. Claire is falling apart at the seams but her best moments are when she is completely relaxed and settled around Virginia – she has forgotten about the upset of losing her best friend and finds solace in what can only be described as the next best thing; the new girlfriend.
The central performances from both Duris and Demoustier are fantastic, they willingly bounce from one to the other despite the genre of the moment. Duris especially, gives totally into his character as Virginia, perfectly walking in high heels. There is a subtle but important change in his attitude and his gait when he wears the women’s clothes and it’s fascinating to watch on screen.
Once again, Ozon has created a world that the audience simply will not want to leave. Whereas this story has departed somewhat from the source text, the inspiration is very much there, creating the same sense of tension and intrigue as the original story. A slick and tender story of gender bending, especially around a time in France when sexuality and genre is constantly being called into question, The New Girlfriend is daring, beautifully shot and an admirable example of French cinema today.