Cast: Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco
Running Time: 108 minutes
Ozon’s The New Girlfriend is a quirky and playful feature which might initially confuse audiences with its melodramatic leanings. However, make no mistake, it’s a carefully constructed and intelligent narrative, which owes much to Hitchcock and shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s actually very hard to say much about The New Girlfriend without giving the ‘big reveal’ away. Luckily this comes early, about twenty minutes in. Before this revelation (you really wouldn’t guess it) we’re given a sentimental opening montage, complete with syrupy music.
So we discover Claire’s (Anaïs Demoustier) BFF, Laura (Isild Le Besco) has recently died. We’re privy not only to a glimpse of the funeral, where Claire begins her thoughtful eulogy, but also an extended sequence showing how Claire and Laura’s friendship began. ‘Laura was my best friend, my friend for life,’ Claire tells us and we cut to them meeting at school, cutting their palms in a blood oath, hanging out in Laura’s bedroom and lots of obligatory hair brushing.
There’s an interesting undercurrent in their relationship though; Laura is definitely in the driving seat. Cut to scenes of schoolboys swooning over the tall, willowy blonde while Claire trails along in her wake. The scene which perhaps defines their relationship most clearly is when Claire sits on the bed and brushes Laura’s hair repeatedly, grooming her best friend and making her beautiful. Pay attention. This is a motif which will return to haunt the audience.
It all seems fairly saccharine and predictable. But that’s why The New Girlfriend works so well. It takes a tired and clichéd trope and undercuts it in shocking and often brutal fashion. Take the credit opening sequence. A series of CU shots show the ritual of a woman getting ready for a special event. Lipstick applied, stockings slipped on, it’s all vaguely erotic. Then the dress and we realise she’s getting ready for her wedding. However a final cut away to a mid shot delivers a morbid visual sucker punch. The rest of Ozon’s direction follows in similar fashion: artful, self-aware, and inventive.
In a way, Laura is the absent focus of The New Girlfriend, but it’s really the story of those left behind, and how death can sometimes be liberating. Shared grief and the need to care for Laura’s daughter, Lucie bring Claire and widower David (Romain Duris) together, and it’s here that things start to get a little bit more…interesting.
Again, it’s hard to say too much without giving a huge amount away, but both Demoustier and Duris’ performances are outstanding. Demoustier projects a shocked naivety with just a smidgen of naughtiness, while Duris is superb as David, who is transformed by his wife’s death in more ways than one. His body and movement are hypnotic—it’s hard to pull your eyes away. Perhaps it’s Claire’s husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) who is bland and underdeveloped. Considering the escalating progression of events, there surely have to be some serious issues in their safely middle-class marriage, but we’re only left to guess.
This is a knowing film (based on a Ruth Rendell short story), with nods to psychosexual analysis and Hitchcockian obsessions. It’s all there—the cool blonde, the preoccupation with masquerade, dressing and ritual, the lapses into melodrama followed by dangerous thriller. All throughout boundaries are constantly blurred: gender, identity, bourgeois respectability, sexuality, desire, and even death. However the repeated refrain throughout is David’s assertion that it was all really very natural.
With its cerebral wit and recurring themes, The New Girlfriend will no doubt be fodder for film studies seminars across universities. However it’s also an enjoyably gratifying film, which will appeal to those wanting their relationship drama with a deliciously dark, rebellious and kinky twist.
The New Girlfriend is available to own on DVD from 21 September.