By Elias Savada.
There’s a tendency toward sexual subversion and sly mystery in any François Ozon film. Naughty fun in the comic farce 8 Women (2002). A year later, the voyeuristic Swimming Pool‘s American tagline was “On the Surface, All Is Calm.” More recently came the unsettling relationship between a bored teacher and a student protégé (In the House, 2012) and the secret desires of a 17-year-old call girl (Young & Beautiful, 2013).
Double lives abound, often swirling about a dangerous, chameleon-like liaison, including those found in Une nouvelle amie, the French director-writer’s 15th feature, liberally adapted from a 15-page short story by Ruth Rendell (the late British mystery author whose works have been filmed by a host of directors, including Claude Chabrol and Pedro Almodóvar). As expected, The New Girlfriend balances comedy and melodrama, while playfully blurring the ever thinning lines between gender and identity.
Ozon felt the story, which he read over 20 years ago, was close in tone to the dramas, mysteries, and thrillers presented on the long-running network anthology television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents from over a half-century ago. The resulting film does have a Hitchcockian undertone, but Ozon’s adaptation definitely has a late night (and R rating) vibe.
As this strange, discomforting tale begins, one of its main characters has died. Laura (Isild Le Besco) was the childhood BFF of Claire (Anaïs Demoustier). The loss has left Laura’s infant daughter Lucie in constant tears and pushed Claire into a depressed funk. No appetite. No life focus. Sex becomes perfunctory, not that her nicely sculpted husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), notices. A blood oath (shown as part of a beautifully compressed growing-up, bonding collage between 7-year-old versions of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Laura and a freckled, pig-tailed redhead Claire has an unsettling ferocity — the red lipstick on their mouths) pushes the heartbroken survivor to declare she will watch over Lucie and David (Roman Duris), the shy, reserved widower and ill-equipped father.
Gathering her courage, Claire visits David and Lucie in their lovely, immaculate home. David’s mental well being’s not all there, no surprise. Thank goodness the trailer for this delightfully entertaining, and maybe a little perverse, comedy doesn’t give much away about the antics that follow. I won’t either. Other critics spill the beans, so be careful about what you read before watching the film. It turns out that poor, demure Claire and outgoing Laura never kept secrets from one another. With one humdinger of an exception.
Anyway, Claire soon makes a new girl friend, Virginia, to whom Lucie also takes a close liking. Secretive phone calls and messages, and cautious outings follows. When Gilles invites an uncomfortable David to dinner, the tension escalates. Claire isn’t sure who she should trust. But then she gets used to having Virginia around and things get interesting and even funny. While Claire is visiting David and Lucie one day, Laura’s mother stops by to see the grandchild and son-in-law. Virginia is at risk of exposing herself, in a sequence that becomes one of the film’s funnier moments. The lies and cover ups continue.
Demoustier and Duris carry their finely etched characters with a fascinating level of wit and intelligence, providing stand-out performances as two people out of their regular element. Meanwhile, Ozon offers his viewers more than a few wisely framed shots to accompany his pointed dialogue, allowing the film to pull more viewers into its complicated sexual manifesto, one which seems to change on a whim. A New Girlfriend, finally arriving in America a year after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, is an aggressive study of human desires and sexual identity, flecked with comic undercurrents and a nuance of mystery. The film’s ending won’t work for some of you; others will embrace the forced kinky in it. Like it or not, it’s the new (ab)normal.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.