The close-up shot that opens The New Girlfriend evokes a glamorous church wedding, as lipstick is carefully applied to the impassive face of a beautiful woman while an organ plays a triumphal Here Comes the Bride. But it takes only a moment before you realize that the ceremony is really a funeral.
So begins the French filmmaker François Ozon’s playful screen adaptation of a dark story by the British mystery writer Ruth Rendell. By turns mischievous, sentimental, subversive and silly, this serio-comic exploration of cross-dressing, gender fluidity and desire suggests the career-opening salvo of a cheeky cinematic enfant terrible and not the work of an old hand with well over a dozen features behind him. But that’s one of Ozon’s gifts; he makes everything old feel new and fresh.
Ozon has never tried to conceal his influences, foremost among them Alfred Hitchcock. In The New Girlfriend, Hitchcock’s diabolical sense of humor is evident in little surprises like the bridal corpse. But here, the master of suspense’s winking hide-and-seek games coincide with Pedro Almodóvar’s brazen rebelliousness in a movie that feels like a fashion editor’s glossy tribute to that Spanish iconoclast. Where androgyny in Almodóvar’s movies is often raucous, disruptive and provocatively sexualized, in Ozon’s The New Girlfriend, it is sweet, unthreatening and almost cozy. A sparkling, sugar-frosted score by Philippe Rombi supplies a wistful romantic gloss.
The dead woman, Laura (Isild Le Besco), is the childhood playmate of Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), with whom she sealed a vow of eternal friendship that culminated in their double wedding to sleek Prince Charmings: Laura to David (Romain Duris), and Claire to Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz).
Laura’s death leaves behind an adorable baby daughter, Lucie. Shortly after the funeral, Claire pays an unannounced visit to David, finds the front door unlocked, and comes upon Lucie being rocked in the arms of an unfamiliar woman, whom she is shocked to discover is really David in a blond wig and one of Laura’s dresses. Her initial distaste quickly gives way to sympathy when David reveals that his sometime compulsion to cross-dress returned after his wife’s death, and that putting on her clothes is his way of keeping her alive.
Ozon, like Hitchcock and Almodóvar, has always been more interested in storytelling than in heavy psychological realism. That’s why The New Girlfriend, despite its forays into gender bending, doesn’t feel like a personal or political statement. It has no axes to grind. The New Girlfriend never pretends to be more than what it is, a delicious and frothy fantasia.
Cast: Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco, Aurore Clément.
Writer-director: François Ozon.
A Cohen Media release. Running time: 109 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Strong sexual content, graphic nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Cosford, O Cinema Miami Shores, South Beach; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, Silverspot.