If Francois Ozon was a painter his work would be entirely in red, his canvass the human body, and his inspiration… not sex, per se, but the intonations of sexuality. He is interested in the strange overlays of life and sexuality and looks upon them with curiosity and a real desire to portray, judgment free, our proclivities.
But Ozon is not a painter. He’s a filmmaker. And so he uses his writing and camera to capture the curving, shifting rise and fall of sex and self and loss and love. This endeavor Ozon undertakes again, with The New Girlfriend, and once again, he does it very, very well.
The film opens on a funeral, where a young woman is seen in her coffin, wearing a wedding dress, as the church organ plays “Here Comes the Bride.” The moment is terribly incongruent, and cannot help but cause audiences to smile even as the funeral that proceeds reaches into real sadness and despair.
Funerals, like so many other human events, often drive us into strange emotional corners that we’d rather avoid. Such is the case for Claire in the weeks after the death of her best friend, Laura. At the service, Claire gives a beautiful eulogy in which she promises to look out for Laura’s husband David, and their baby, Lucie.
Despite her promise to care for Lucie and help David move on, Claire refuses to visit their home. She is unable to cope with the thought of seeing her dead best friend’s daughter. But at the behest of her husband Gilles, she makes the journey to David’s house, where she finds a woman feeding Lucie her bottle.
It takes a moment for Claire to grasp the sight before her, but she does eventually realize that this woman is David, dressed in Laura’s clothing, playing mother to his daughter.
What unfolds from that moment is an emotional psychodrama that mines deep reaches of grief, sexual desire, and human connection. Ozon presents his drama in the heightened tones of a thriller, but one that follows none of the rules we have come to expect.
Audiences wait for some plot twist or character turn that will throw this story back into the conventions that we expect. There is romance, mystery, sexual exploration, marital strife, all the things that could take us to the conventional dramas of LGBT cinema or stories of infidelity. But Ozon, to his credit, never succumbs to the pull of such conventions.
And while story conventions are being upended, the two leads in The New Girlfriend, Anaïs Demoustier and Romain Duris, give striking, empathic performances; the revelations they have on-screen–big and small, sexual and social–are wondrous to behold.
Ozon’s stories often tread close (or over) the line that separates drama from melodrama, but the deep emotional currents he explores are often served by such an overt approach. 8 Women and Swimming Pool, the films that brought Ozon international acclaim a decade ago, carried this same hyper-dramatic air.
And like those pictures, The New Girlfriend is better as a result. Grief and sorrow and the inexplicable nature of sexuality are subjects that can withstand a certain level melodrama when they are done with the skill and intensity and unflinching fun of Ozon.