With delicious performances from Anaïs Demoustier and Romain Duris, François Ozon’s crossdressing caper The New Girlfriend sizzles like drops on burning rocks.
More Than A Womanby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With Almodóvar’s follow-up to I’m So Excited, Silencio, not slated to hit our screens until 2016, it’s up to François Ozon to provide some light-hearted fun – a challenge the French director seems more than happy to embrace with all the high-camp fervour of a John Waters film. And Ozon’s Une Nouvelle Amie is in fact his most Almodóvaresque film to date, with its female-centred fun and its drag-makeover comedy. Perhaps it’s Ruth Rendell’s source novel (which was also the basis for Live Flesh), but it’s also an intriguing addition to the director’s female-centred œuvre, which stretches from 8 Women, Swimming Pool and Angel to his most recent exploration of young female beauty Jeune Et Jolie. Unlike Almodóvar’s simple pleasure in femininity, Ozon’s attitude to women is more complex, but with Romain Duris picking up the mantle from Gael García Bernal in Bad Education as European cinema’s most unlikely transvestite, The New Girlfriend has its own rather ladylike charm.
Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and the beautiful Laura (Isild Le Besco) have been best friends since girlhood, but when Laura suddenly dies she leaves behind her husband David (Romain Duris) to look after their daughter Lucie. During her eulogy Claire promises to help David in bringing up Lucie, but it’s only when her husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) coaxes her out of her depression that she goes to look in on him. Stumbling in unannounced, she discovers a blonde lady looking after Lucie, who turns out to be David, trying to be both mother and father to Lucie by living out his female alter ego Virginia. The sole witness to David’s cross-dressing predilection, it’s not long before Claire and Virginia are out shopping and taking weekend breaks together, transforming David into his ideal woman. And gaining in confidence, Virginia starts to turn some heads. Even Claire’s.
With a beautifully concise opening filmed by Pascal Marti that captures the backstory and relationship dynamics with eyeliner precision, The New Girlfriend unfolds into a delicious comedy that twists sexual experimentation, desire and transformation into a neat French plait. It’s not only thanks to Ozon’s masterful direction, but largely to the performances from its two leads Anaïs Demoustier and Romain Duris, whose first appearance in drag is worth the ticket price alone. And it’s everything you’d expect from Duris – witty, unabashed and daring, as he dons a perruque with sprightly charisma. And his blonde bombshell is surprisingly comely – with perfect hair, high heels and short skirts. But even up against such a colourful performance, it’s Demoustier that really shines, even as she’s played into a corner with her “second-string” looks – costumed by César-nominated Pascaline Chavanne into a more male role of dark jackets and collared shirts.
But even with feminine and masculine norms reversed, Une Nouvelle Amie adds to the commotion as a strange mutual attraction develops between Claire and Virginia – filled with all the adolescent excitement of secret games and those lusty lesbian longings of youth. Claire’s relationship with David/Virginia becomes a hallowed, transformative space – as she slowly comes to terms with the death of her one true love and rapidly takes control in the bedroom. But beginning to feel guilty – her loyalties split between keeping David’s secret and being honest with her husband – Claire is no longer just an innocent bystander in David’s cross-dressing closet. Just like her relationship with Laura, her friendship with David/Virginia is a quixotic mix of female bonding and desire – and it’s a dynamic that goes beyond gender, sexuality or drag.
But while Ozon’s The New Girlfriend delights with its transgressive frissons, it’s ultimately a confusion of metamorphosis and identity. Even with its years-later ending, the film provides little closure to either Claire or Virginia’s story. Claire only finally becomes a woman once she recognises her love of women (and men dressed as women), but still the spectre of homosexuality is underplayed in Une Nouvelle Amie, reducing both David and Claire’s deviancy to a kind of innocent playfulness that never really enters the real world, existing only in the Ozonian cosmos of beautiful lawns, dresses and hotel corridors. It’s a deliciously elegant haute-couture collection of images and performance, but The New Girlfriend is in the end a triumph of style over substance – even as it most beautifully explodes.
The New Girlfriend is released on 22nd May 2015 in the UK