30 May 2015

François Ozon’s ‘The New Girlfriend’

The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie) is loosely based on a short story of that name by Ruth Rendell. Two girls, Claire and Laura, meet at school and decide to be friends for life. They grow up and marry and Laura has a baby. She dies soon after the little girl is born - French films are good at funerals. Soon afterwards Claire goes to see widower David to find him wearing his wife’s clothes while bottle-feeding the baby. Having introduced this key aspect so early on that most critics seem to have revealed it, the film turns into a mélange of ambiguous straight, gay and transvestite sexuality.

Ozon is industrious, if nothing else, and this is the fourth of his films that I have posted about in as many years. The New Girlfriend has little in common with Potiche, rather more with the sexuality of Jeune & Jolie, and like In the House uses domestic settings which seem more North American than French. In fact for this film the location for the houses was Quebec, although the offices, hotel and mall scenes were shot in a business district not far from La Defense in Paris.

Roman Duris turns in an excellent performance as David/“Virginia”, appropriately not entirely at ease as either. Anaïs Demoustier’s Claire is the study in confusion one might expect, counterpointed by the tasteful restraint of her wardrobe as opposed to the one David inherits from Laura. Of course there is a long history in British comedy of female characters being played in drag (the Pantomime dame) but in an exaggerated style. Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everage and the potter Grayson Perry’s artfully dressed alter ego Claire can be regarded as modern manifestations of that tradition and are both remarkably popular. But there is nothing comic about David and this Claire’s developing relationship and the dark psychological tangle that ensues. Whether Ozon has won the approval of the LGBT etc community/non-community with this film I wouldn’t know – but I would guess not.

The subject matter may or may not be to everyone’s taste, but I thought the weakness of the film was the uneven way in which the plot unrolled: a major revelation early on, a slow evolution and then what turns out to be a not-so dramatic development followed by a brief “Seven years later” sequence at the end. Just what had happened in all that time, when most of the film had been spent covering about the same number of months, we are left to guess at.

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