After the award winning Jeune et Jolie, which was in competition for the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, François Ozon again explores sexuality with the noirish-drama, Une Nouvelle Amie (The New Girlfriend). Loosely based on a short story by British author Ruth Rendell – the mistress of the psychological thriller – Ozon packs out his film with a witty examination of gender and sexuality and the painful process of coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.
After the death of her childhood friend Laura (Isild Le Besco), Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura’s young husband David (Romain Duris) seek comfort in each other’s company. Claire promised Laura she would help David look after their baby daughter and a few weeks after the funeral, she drops by David’s house unannounced. In the living room she sees a young woman she takes to be the baby’s nanny. But Claire is in for a shock when she discovers the real identity of the person sitting on the sofa. Claire’s initial horror at David’s secret is gradually replaced by a growing affection and attraction to his alter-ego Virginia.
Fans of Ozon won’t be disappointed. He is back on familiar territory with a scathing look at the French middle-class setting the film in a soulless housing estate reminiscent of a set from the popular TV series Desperate Housewives. And true to form the main protagonist is a character who is forced to hide their true desires in the face of a conformist society. Usually this character is female, but here Ozon muddies the water by focusing on a man who likes to dress and act like a woman. While the film plays with gender stereotypes, it never descends into caricature and the relationship which develops between the two bereaved friends is genuinely touching.
Less satisfying is the confusing web of sexual desire Ozon weaves between his characters. David/Virginia is attracted to Claire as a man while Claire’s sexuality is more ambiguous. And what of the suggested homosexual attraction between David and Claire’s husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaz)? It’s too many threads to successfully untangle which could account for the film’s farcical denouement. As with Jeune and Jolie, Ozon offers up a rather sanitised view of the marginal transvestite world glimpsed by Claire and David. Only one scene, where Gilles drives through a forest late at night with transvestite prostitutes lining the road, hints at a darker side to this existence.
Duris camps it up magnificently in the lead role. From the neck down he is hugely convincing as the diva-ish Virginia with fabulous legs and sashaying hips. Facially, it takes a greater leap of the imagination to see him as an attractive, seductive woman. Demoustier is excellent as the grieving Claire who gradually emerges from the shadow of her dead best friend. But full marks to Personnaz whose underplayed performance is in perfect counterbalance to the craziness elsewhere on screen. He was formidable in Daniel Auteuil’s 2013 Fanny and Marius and likewise shone in Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay.