It is safe to say that any director worth their weight will eventually be measured by the cinematic yardstick that is Alfred Hitchcock. While all who make movies owe something to the Master of Suspense, the actual inheritor to his throne has yet to be decided. But if anyone deserves it, it is the French master of sex and psychology, François Ozon. For the past 20 years, Ozon has explored the tropes that Hitchcock made famous and would have had a field day with had the Production Code not encumber him, and Ozon’s latest, The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie), has the master’s fingerprints all over it.
Opening with the first of many deceptions—close-ups of a woman’s lips rouged with lipstick, make-up applied, a wedding ring is slipped on her finger—only then do we realize that the woman is dead and being buried in her wedding dress. Her best friend, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), weeps while delivering the eulogy.
Ozon then flashes back to Claire and Laura meeting as children, growing into teenagers, meeting boys, getting married, Laura’s child being baptized, and, finally, Laura dead at an early age from unknown causes. All of this accomplished in the opening 10 minutes, with Ozon relying on camera pans and reveals to show the passage of time as well as the shift of emotion. A powerful opening that hints that what will follow will be of equal power.
The flashback hints, but the fallout confirms it: Claire’s affection for Laura went beyond just normal friendship, though it was a feeling that remained unspoken. Claire’s attraction to Laura remains strong even in death, and on a morning run, Claire stops by Laura’s house just to be close to her friend. What she finds is Laura’s widow, bottle-feeding his child, dressed in Laura’s clothes.
It certainly is a shock to Claire, but the excuse that David (Romain Duris) gives makes sense. The baby was missing his mother, so Dad put on a wig and a dress, and voila, Mommy’s back. Something Claire can empathize with—she is not coping well with the death, and Laura’s husband and child certainly are suffering in their own right.
But there is much more to David’s cross-dressing than just good parenting. He has been doing it for years, and Laura was aware of it. This bit of information cuts Claire, knowing that there were secrets that her best friend kept from her—Claire has no qualms keeping secrets from her husband, even lying to him when she needs to. But, David’s cross-dressing also offers Claire a form of relief. As long as Davis keeps wearing Laura’s clothes, acting like a woman, then Laura isn’t gone. At least, sort of. It doesn’t quite work out the way David or Claire hope, and it certainly doesn’t play out in any way the audience might expect.
With The New Girlfriend, Ozon weaves a tale of Freudian sexuality, confusion, acceptance, deception, and, ultimately, understanding. He does not tip his hand to how this will all come together, keeping the narrative tight and shifting focus, forcing viewers to stay on their toes, constantly wondering what might be coming next. He is helped greatly by two magnificent performances from Duris and Demoustier, as well as a haunting score from Philippe Rombi and dreamy, hallucinatory cinematography from Pascal Marti.
The New Girlfriend is full of sharp observations and devious twists and turns and a few dream sequences that reveal the sexual tension buried so deep not even poor Claire is aware of it. Just the sort of thing that would have made the Master of Suspense grin.
The New Girlfriend / Une nouvelle amie (2014)
Written and Directed by: François Ozon
Based on the novel by Ruth Rendell
Produced by: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Starring: Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco
Cinema Guild, Running time 108 minutes, Rated R, Opens September 25, 2015