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'The New Girlfriend' Fails to Live Up to François Ozon's Best Work

Ozon continues to shift genre and bend gender with The New Girlfriend, but the results feel clumsy and calculated when compared with the director’s best work.


The New Girlfriend

Director: François Ozon
Cast: Anais Demoustier, Romain Duris
Distributor: Metrodome
Rated: 15
UK DVD Release: 2015-09-21

Re-watching The New Girlfriend (Une Nouvelle Amie), the latest genre-hopper from the ever-prolific François Ozon, is an intriguing prospect. So dependent is the picture on an unexpected revelation that it seems unlikely that the movie will retain much of its interest or appeal once that particular surprise is known.

Still, Ozon’s films very often gain from repeat viewings, and there’s the hope that The New Girlfriend will reveal itself as such a work, one whose concerns – the fluidity of gender and sexuality, the interaction of Eros and Thanatos, and the complexity of replacing a lost loved one – will gain in depth once the “twist” is out of the way. 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’s shortcomings only seem amplified on a second viewing, confirming the failure of this rather insubstantial concoction to match Ozon’s finest work.

The strongest elements in The New Girlfriend are all in its first half. Ozon opens the film with a truly terrific, blackly comic visual gag: apparent preparations for a wedding that turn out, after all, to be preparations for a funeral. A strong bond forged between two female friends – Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) – in childhood but truncated by this all-too-early death then gets sketched with witty briskness, and the film subsequently 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 Laura'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 makeshift pairings and threesomes, and the intimacy that Claire and David forge – based on the presence/absence of the dead woman who unites them – is another such partnership.

There’s certainly 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 mining 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. Such archly self-conscious touches make you laugh rather than cringe, though the Hitchcockian cameo than Ozon gives himself as a would-be cinema groper is a little much.

But there’s also a drawback to the game of compare-and-contrast that the movie encourages: namely, it highlights the deficiencies of The New Girlfriend when weighed against Ozon’s most accomplished shorts and features: Regarde La Mer (1997), Under the Sand (2000), Le Refuge (2010), all of which are evoked at various points throughout the film.

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, and emptier, and while he’s always faced accusations by some of being an “auteur-lite”, that perception seems to be gaining rather than losing currency the more films he turns out.

The New Girlfriend boasts some felicitous touches, but as the clunking erotic reversals, dream sequences, and queer 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 remains, and the always-daring Duris, in particular, is something to see here. The film is also significant as another of the major Ruth Rendell adaptations produced by European directors (the picture is freely adapted from a Rendell short story) 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 (1999) and Talk to Her (2002). But the movie, hampered by an embarrassingly cosy, wish-fulfilment coda is, at the last, a fairly shallow addition to the director’s ongoing exploration of identity, death and desire.

The transfer to DVD is crisp and clear. No extras were available on the review copy.

5

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