DIR/WRI: François Ozon • WRI: François Ozon • PRO: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer • DOP: Pascal Marti • ED: Laure Gardette • MUS: Philippe Rombi • DES: Michel Barthélémy • CAST: Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco
Much like his cinematic idol R.W. Fassbinder, director François Ozon has provocatively flirted with an eclectic mix of genres, subjects and styles marking a bizarrely postmodern trajectory that is becoming increasingly difficult to explicate. As one of les enfants terribles of the new wave in French cinema in the ’90s engaging with the visceral and unsettling cinema du corps, Ozon has traversed a cinematic tightrope of sexually unshrinking, perversely political and rococo-esque creativity, through a satirical and hyperactive lens into transgressive identities and sexual behaviour. Equally like Fassbinder, such wide-ranging ambition has resulted in as many triumphs as it has frustrations, including the ridiculously joyous 8 femmes, the darkly paranoid Swimming Pool, the frothy farcical Potiche and the psychologically satirical In the House, however, it does appear that Ozon’s films are, at times, panegyrics to celebrated auteurs rather than coherent connections with his own sense of auteurism.
In his latest film, Ozon continues his multi-textured investigations into personal identities and transformation in The New Girlfriend, a psychological, romantic melodrama based on Ruth Rendall’s 1985 short story of the same name. Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) have been best friends since they were seven years old and while Claire has always faded into the background, when Laura dies, she is utterly devastated. She vows to keep an eye on Laura’s husband, David (Romain Duris) and six-month old baby but too overwrought with grief, she is reluctant to visit. One day she plucks up the courage to see David and finds him dressed in Laura’s clothes comforting the baby. David insists he is a transvestite but not gay and Laura knew he derived pleasure from dressing up as a woman. Initially repulsed at David’s fetish, Claire gradually accepts him as Virgina, becoming his friend and mentor and discovering her own buried femininity along the way, until another tragedy strikes which threatens to destroy their newfound relationship.
In customary fashion, Ozon plunges as many styles as he can appropriate from cinematic masters such as Fassbinder, Sirk, Hitchcock, Almodóvar and Haynes and while there is occasional delight of artful satire, fanciful farce, psychological undercurrent and political breadth, it soon becomes evident, as the intricate subplots and subtexts unfold, Ozon has rather overstretched himself again. The core theme at play, whereby a man grapples with his own and others acceptance of his ambiguous personal identity, becomes severely deluged by the film’s overriding clutter and while it does tap into relevant prevailing sexual and gender discourses, it fails to inject any intense probing from a fresh perspective and seriously loses impactful weight.
While the use of a seductive feminine corpse becomes the satirical catalyst to navigate explorations into subversive sexualities, kick-starting the narrative with skittish promise, the subsequent jagged narrative strands; David’s shame and subsequent liberation via Claire’s subverted and rediscovered femininity, detoured through everyone’s homosexual ambiguity, default comfortably into an underlying sense of déjà vu that never really leaves. Such meandering narrative structuring becomes rather laboriously complex and devoid of promised satirical execution, merely leaves audiences with a shed load of clutter; a cute shed load of clutter but clutter nonetheless. It has all been said and done before and said and done much better.
Ozon himself appears to lose interest halfway through his tangled weave and becomes more engrossed in polishing the film’s composition rather than psychologically probing his narrative themes. It would be harsh to say that style over substance reigns in The New Girlfriend, however, it does seem that Ozon’s appropriation, rather than reinvention, of Sirk’s ornate visual style and melodramatic themes that fuse irrealism with emotionalism, is simply that, borrowed but not improved. Ozon’s use of Katy Perry in his soundtrack is intended as a significant marker of a more liberal celebration of femininity, culture and sexuality, however interwoven with a deeply sombre score by Philippe Rombi, which introduces but does not execute the psychological intent of his characters aspirations á la Sirk, is at odds with the misplaced pink bubblegum and buttered popcorn tone of the overall narrative.
Performances by Romain Duris as David / Virgina and Anaïs Demoustier as Claire do compensate for the narrative complications and Duris must be commended for creating a wholly convincing portrayal of transvestism that categorically resists stereotype. The sense of acceptance that Ozon is attempting to capture is beautifully executed by Duris when Virgina goes shopping for in public for the first time or when he is visibly moved by the celebration of his femininity at a transvestite club and it is a testament to Duris that it is the melancholic David, rather than the liberated Virgina, that is more complex to understand. It is a shame that Ozon does not engage with more of this emotionalism to give a more rounded structure to his narrative as he does when he returns to his New French Extreme roots by seductively investigating the rituals of the flesh, which become the most unprocessed in the film, leaving the audience gasping for more. Anaïs Demoustier mirrors Duris executed performance as she grapples with her own gender identity, which transforms from heavily coded masculinity to a more overt celebration of her femininity, the further Virginia is liberated. Her own delicate transition from obstinate prejudice to acceptance via a lesbian subtext encapsulates the malleability of personal identities that Ozon intends to illustrate but too fussily delineates.
The New Girlfriend attempts to satirically investigate and interrogate sexual diversity through a disruption of the mundane comforts of middle class life. Where Ozon has previously succeeded in films such as 8 Women and Swimming Pool, the psychological tone in the The New Girlfriend does not lend well to its ultimate conclusion, which he has usurped and reformulated from its more apt conclusion in the source novel, resulting in the film’s overall jaggedness. It does appear that Ozon is moving further away from the deviancy, provocation and brutality that made his name and it possibly may be time for Ozon to take what he has learnt from the cinematic greats and find a way to stamp a more coherent identity over his own films.
The New Girlfriend is released 22nd May 2015