Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 17, 2015 1:49 pm 
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Messy mélo

The dangerously prolific Françcois Ozon has seemed to be on a roll recently with the very smart In the House (2012) and the handsome and bold Young & Beautiful (2013). And before that, his adaptation of the boulevard comedy Potiche was at least charming and graced by the presence of Catherine Deneuve and Fabrice Lucchini. But I have to agree with those critics who say that despite an excellent performance by Romain Duris and a nice one by the relative newcomer Anaïs Demoustier (but her appearance in Pascale Ferran'S Bird People the same year was much more successful), The New Girlfriend seems muddled. Comedy, romance, Hitchcockian psychological thriller, melodrama, what is it? We don't know, and this comes partly from the way the surface is too bland and bourgeois, glossed over with nice houses and luxurious living rooms, the husband Gilles played by Raphaël Personnaz a pleasant nonentity who adds nothing to the personal dynamics.

Ozon is working from a short story by the celebrated English crime novelist Ruth Rendell, and if Almodóvar has been mentioned as well as Chabrol, it's because Rendell's work was the source of the Spanish director's Living Flesh and the French one's La Céremonie. The latter was the only film adaptation of her writing that Rendell approved; it was faithful, decisive and nasty.

But what's going on here is different. The subject seems to be temptation. Again as in La Céremonie there's the symbiotic friendship between two women, from childhood here, linking the stronger Laura (Isild Le Besco) and the sweet, limpid Claire (Demoustier). They grow up inseparable, then Laura is the first to get married, to David (Duris). But, just when Laura has had a baby, she becomes ill and dies. The movie gets going with the striking image of Laura's pure white coffin, in which, after a weepy church speech by Claire and the dropping of white roses into the grave by her mother (Aurore Clément) and others, she's buried in her wedding dress.

Not long after the funeral the equally bereft Claire and David are drawn together into an unusual friendship when Claire comes over to visit and discovers David caring for the baby -- in full drag, wig, makeup, the works, wearing one of Laura's dresses whose familiar maternal smell comforts the child. Claire protects David's secret, giving his/her female identity a name, Virginia, and accompanying Virginia on secret explorations to buy clothes and spend the night at a trans-friendly nightclub.

But through all this, David/Virginia's intentions and sexuality and Claire's purpose in this new relationship remain uncertain. Is the "new girlfriend" a man whose transgender or cross-dressing intentions Claire is seeking to empower, or a substitute for the dead friend this man is subconsciously embodying? (Mike D'Angelo states this dilemma neatly on Letterboxd.) That's where Ozon fails to make things clear, and that uncertainty dilutes and confuses the effect of his story. Claire's pull toward David/Virginia is one big temptation, which means deceiving Gilles and perhaps betraying him (this would be stronger too, if Gilles were less of a cipher). We're left with too many missed opportunities, unresolved elements.

This is not to say there aren't a number of beautifully realized scenes, enhanced by Demoustier's doe-eyed sweetness and Duris's skillful use of his own svelte physicality (never overdoing or camping up the feminine gestures) undercut by his lantern jaw and frequent five-o'clock shadow. This is above all a feather in Duris' cap. Unfortunately, however, subtle but undermining shifts in tone keep these sequences from progressing with the kind of suspenseful, forward-driving force Chabrol was a master of. Ozon is dealing with very tricky material here. David's secret is haunting, disturbing, at moments even disgusting; but it's also a touching and in the circumstances -- marriage quieted his need to cross-dress, but the loss of his wife has aggravated it -- rather solemn and urgent situation. And such complexity requires a narrative surety the adaptor/director can't quite seem to muster, this time.

The New Girlfriend/Une nouvelle amie, in French, 108 mins., debuted at Toronto 6 Sept. 2014, several dozen other festivals, in French cinemas from 5 Nov.2014 and very well received (AlloCiné press rating 3.5). US release 18 Sept. 2015.

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