The opening shot of The New Girlfriend is an extreme close up of lipstick being applied to a pair of thin lips, the camera lingers over the act, showing every pore and wrinkle with an intimate level of detail, it makes a gentle rasping as the light shade of red is applied and seeing what is usually a normal act in such blunt and intimate detail makes the whole act a little unsettling. Making it even stranger is that the camera reveals only seconds later that the pale lips belong to a corpse, a gorgeous young woman lays stiff in the morgue, she looks barely into her twenties and as we learn in the following seconds is being prepared for her own funeral. It’s quite an intriguing opening for a film, and the reason that it sticks out so much in memory is because someone seems to be applying lipstick or some other form of cosmetic face-paint in nearly every scene of François Ozon‘s latest film.
In an opening ten minutes that bring back painful memories of the love story from Up, we are shown the friendship of two young girls, Claire and Laura. They met in the first year of school, grew up together as close as sisters and now in their twenties, live happily married to their husbands in the same street. It all seems perfect until Laura (Isild le Besco) gets sick, dies shortly after and leaves behind her newborn daughter and a grieving husband . She is the corpse we see in the opening shot, and the story of the film begins here, as Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) tries to piece her life together after the death of her best friend, and soon stumbles across a secret about David (Romain Duris), the grieving husband that Laura left behind. Unbeknownst to Claire, David was actually a closeted cross-dressing transvestite and over the course of the film we see him slowly change his gender, morph into a woman and grow closer and closer with Clare, becoming essentially: The new girlfriend.
Director François Ozon is often described as one of the ‘bad boys of French cinema’ and after seeing this it’s clear to see why, he isn’t afraid to tackle big and until recently taboo subjects, and his latest film which he adapted from the novel by Ruth Rendell is no exception. The result is a film that works only half the time, it would be a fascinating case-study for anyone interesting in queer cinema and at best The New Girlfriend weaves between exploring themes such as desire, gender, sexuality and friendship in a unique and intriguing way, and does it alongside that very liberal approach to sex and nudity that only the French can pull off.
All the performances are good, the very cute Anaïs Demoustier is able to create an interesting leading lady behind all those freckles, but the true standout is the very dedicated performance of Romain Duris as David. Even though he doesn’t looks very much like a woman (his chin looks like it could break bricks), he’s able to change his on-screen presence to great effect, he never seems embarrassed and importantly never goes over the top, it’s a brave and ultimately very respectable performance.
However, what lets this film down is that it’s difficult to see what genre and, more importantly, tone Ozon has aimed for. The story could have played out a few different ways as either a thriller, a feel-good comedy or a serious exploratory drama, and it seems to have gone with the option ‘All of the above’. It certainly takes itself seriously most of the time, yet occasionally has scenes and elements that are faintly ridiculous; it’s hard to see what the film strives for when segments of serious and blunt emotions are intercut with shopping montages accompanied by a Katy Perry song. It’s also difficult to decipher what the overall point of the film is, there doesn’t seem to be any overarching message or major pay off at the kind of strange ending. For those interesting in gender studies this could make a great case study but as a film itself, even with two very good leading performances, it’s more strange than actually good.
The New Woman is playing as part of the Alliance French Film Festival.