The New Girlfriend (Une Nouvelle Amie), the new film from the ever-prolific François Ozon, opens with a truly terrific, blackly comic visual gag: apparent preparations for a wedding that turn out, after all, to be preparations for a funeral. Eros and Thanatos are, as often, major presences in Ozon’s latest genre-hopper, and that opening reveal is certainly not the last surprise that the movie springs on us.
Alas, while a vast improvement on Ozon’s previous feature, the awfully tacky, jejune Belle du Jour rip-off Young and Beautiful (2013), The New Girlfriend doesn’t quite make good on the promise of its superb opening sequence or its generally strong first half.
Adapted “freely” from Ruth Rendell’s short story, the film pivots upon a revelation that it would be churlish to disclose. Suffice it to say that it’s one that fits snugly into Ozon’s habitual preoccupation with interrogating family dynamics and fixed categories of gender and sexuality. A strong bond forged between female friends in childhood but truncated by an all-too-early death gets sketched with witty briskness, and the film then zeroes in on those left behind and the forms that their grief takes.
Devastated by her friend’s death, Claire (Anais Demoustier) promises to take care of her friend’s husband, David (Romain Duris), and the couple’s baby daughter. But it’s a pledge that ends up having more complicated repercussions than she might have imagined. Ozon’s movies revel in odd makeshift pairings and threesomes, of course, and the intimacy that Claire and David forge, based on the presence/absence of the dead woman who unites them, is another such partnership.
Although it certainly communicates without such knowledge, there’s fun to be had in placing The New Girlfriend within the wider context of Ozon’s body of work. Indeed, the director invites you to do so, not only by returning to some of the well-established thematic territory identified above but also by choosing to have two characters settle down in front of the TV to watch one of his own films, 2007’s Angel. Slyly done, such archly self-conscious touches make you laugh rather than cringe, though the Hitchcockian cameo that Ozon gives himself as a would-be cinema groper is perhaps a little much.
There’s also a drawback to the game of compare-and-contrast that the movie encourages: namely, that it highlights the deficiencies of The New Girlfriend when weighed against Ozon’s finest shorts and features, works such as Regarde La Mer (1997), Under the Sand (2000) and Le Refuge (2010), all of which are evoked at various points here.
Somewhere along the line, Ozon seems to have lost some of the elements that made his earlier work special: beautiful tactile imagery, tingling eroticism, wry suggestiveness. His films now seem glossier, broader, emptier, and while he’s always faced accusations of being an “auteur-lite”, that perception seems to be gaining rather than losing currency the more films he turns out. I was often intrigued by The New Girlfriend, and the movie has its pleasures, but as the clunking erotic reversals, dream sequences and fantasies of the second half kicked in, I found myself thinking back to a time when the provocations in Ozon’s movies didn’t feel so calculated or the shifts between genres quite so heavy-handed.
On the plus side, The New Girlfriend is well-acted: Ozon’s sure touch with his performers has remained, and Duris, in particular, is something to see here. And, as Ozon intends, the picture seems to be a crowd-pleaser: at the end, a fellow audience member announced that the film was the best thing that he’d seen in the Festival so far. It’s also significant as another of the major Ruth Rendell adaptations produced by European directors, taking its place alongside Claude Chabrol’s Le Ceremonie (1995) and Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997).
In fact, The New Girlfriend turns out to be the most Almodovarian yet of Ozon’s features: it might be described as a cross between All About My Mother and Talk to Her. However, hampered by an excessively cosy coda, the movie is, at the last, a fairly shallow addition to the director’s ongoing exploration of identity, death and desire.
Something Must Break (2014)
A complementary, but more genuinely transgressive, companion piece to The New Girlfriend is provided by Something Must Break (Nånting måste gå sönder), the debut feature from Swedish director Ester Martin Bergsmark, which focuses on the relationship between Sebastian (Saga Becker), a transgender teen, and Andreas (Iggy Malmborg), a boy with whom he falls in love.
In its combining of a by turns joyful and troubled teen romance with the coming-of-age narrative of a boy who desires to be a girl, Something Must Break might be the love child of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (2013). But the movie develops its own identity thanks to Bergsmark’s distinctive, idiosyncratic vision.
There are some startling images – both rough-and-ready and dreamily beautiful – and the movie boasts an excellent soundtrack: it’s mostly composed of exciting Swedish synthpop though a late-sequence employment of “You’re My Thrill” ensures that you’ll never hear that song in quite the same way again. The film is frustratingly sketchy on key matters: the characters’ work lives and family backgrounds get zero attention. But as a brooding, moody account of the agony and ecstasy of first love and identity creation, Something Must Break proves hard to shake off.