Mark Reviews Movies

The New Girlfriend


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: François Ozon

Cast: Anaïs Demoustier, Romain Duris, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco, Aurore Clément, Jean-Claude Bolle-Reddat

MPAA Rating: R (for some strong sexual content and graphic nudity)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 9/18/15 (limited); 9/25/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 24, 2015

There are two montages at the beginning of The New Girlfriend. The first follows the steps of a woman apparently dressing in her bridal attire, until we realize that she is being dressed and that she is dead. The second, bookended by a woman giving a eulogy at the funeral of her best friend, rushes through the friendship between these women—the childhood play, a blood bond, the heartbreak of failed romance, the promise of real love, two weddings, a baptism, an illness. Each segment builds from the previous one, with the entirety of the sequence connected by visual cues. The sequence is a stunning, affecting piece of filmmaking from writer/director François Ozon.

It also feels like a promise of what's to come. If Ozon can so expertly illuminate the lives of these two characters in such a limited amount of time, surely the rest will at least be as enlightening. To an extent, it is, although Ozon's screenplay (adapted from a short story by Ruth Rendell) is more interested in using those insights to fulfill less satisfactory and far more melodramatic ends.

The best friend of Laura (Isild Le Besco), the deceased woman, is Claire (Anaïs Demoustier). In her eulogy, she says she intends to keep the promise she made to her friend to watch over Laura's husband David (Romain Duris) and baby daughter, to whom Claire is the godmother.

At first, Claire has difficulty even getting out of bed and going to work, let alone try to console David and help him with a 6-month-old baby. Her husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) encourages her to try, and while on a jog, she stops by David's house and, after there's no response from her knocking, enters when she hears the baby crying.

Inside, she finds David dressed in one of Laura's dresses, a cardigan, a blonde wig, and some comfortable women's shoes. He confesses that he always felt more comfortable in women's clothing but that Laura's femininity kept that desire at bay. Now that she's gone, the need has returned, and he figures his daughter needs a woman's presence. Only his wife knew—and accepted—his secret, and David hopes that Claire won't tell anyone, even Gilles, lest Laura's parents (Aurore Clément and Jean-Claude Bolle-Reddat) attempt to interfere with his role as a father.

To keep David's secret from her husband, Claire invents a new female friend named "Virginia." David quite likes the name and prefers that Claire refer to him by it when they're together.

With rare exception, no one here is whom they seem, and if a character is to be taken at face value, that's not before Ozon plays with the idea that there might be some secret hidden within each of these characters—even hidden from themselves. There's a reason Claire is outraged by David's proclivity for dressing in women's clothes (She calls him a "pervert" and scolds that, while a child may need a mother, that child also needs a father). Before she can even consider what she's hiding from herself, though, it takes some time with him and a dream about Laura while at her friend's childhood home.

There's a feeling of openness here in regards to Ozon's view on identity and sexuality. These characters are constantly trying to figure out who they are and who the people they know are. David, for example, does not identify as a woman, despite his obvious comfort with the role (Even when he isn't wearing the clothing, he has to catch himself from striking too "feminine" a posture). When trouble arises with his only confidant, after the stay at Laura's country manor leads from one misunderstanding to an outright lie, he seems to return to masculinity without a problem. He evolves as a character. So, too, does Claire, and do we see Gilles giving David a curious, inviting look after he thinks he knows what David's secret is? Claire certainly thinks so, we gather from a scene in a locker room that is either fear or fantasy.

This is partly a comedy of misunderstandings, and Ozon's lighthearted touch suits this material, in which characters must stay on their toes to keep up with their own and others' shifting sense of self. The performances, especially from Demoustier and Duris, are equally deft in grounding their characters' non-stop changes.

Not too surprisingly, the story becomes more complicated as these characters fight back against what they suspect about themselves and each other. We get two impressions from the movie's later sections: that Ozon seems uncertain about where to take this tale and that the uncertainty is reflected in the movie's inconsistent hold on mood in its final act.

What is surprising is how conventionally the screenplay begins to wrap up this story and how blatantly manipulative its methods are in order to do so. Let's just say that The New Girlfriend arrives at a conclusion that is comparatively traditional when placed against its earlier, more liberal vision of modern sexuality. That could be fine, but we also have to consider that it gets there by way of transparently melodramatic turns, including—no kidding—a character going into a coma. That's a brand of traditionalism that really doesn't belong in this century.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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