By Tony Schwab
Despite his popularity in France, Director Francois Ozon has had trouble catching on in the U.S. because critics feel that he is too odd or edgy for American audiences. However, in Ozon’s latest film “The New Girlfriend,” his main fault is that he is too plain.
The movie opens as Laura (Isild Le Besco) is being dressed for a wedding. There are chilling close-ups as makeup is applied. Slowly, it is revealed that the body is being prepared for an open casket. At her funeral, Laura’s best friend Claire (played by Anaïs Demoustier) arrives to give a eulogy. Here comes the twist: Claire has secretly been in love with Laura for most of her life. In a long, extremely stylized flashback, the story of their friendship and one-sided romance plays out. Here, Ozon is at his most melodramatic. The lighting and color is so intensely bright that the scene looks like an abstract painting. Akin to Ozon’s better movies, this sequence is done with such unrestrained style that the soap opera material seems totally befitting.
The rest of the movie is much calmer and more cliché, despite a plot that may strike many as new and topical. Claire, deep in mourning, copes with grief by taking care of her new born baby. She discovers that Laura’s husband, David (Romain Duris), has been dressing as a woman. Initially, David claims that this is only a way of coping, but he gradually comes to realize that this is his true identity. David changes his name to Virginia and forms a close friendship with Claire. This process is sweet enough, but it takes far too long. The plot loitered in sentimentality. By the end, some momentum is regained, but the plot is predictable and leaves many darker aspects of the characters unaddressed, especially Claire’s unrequited love for Laura. It is especially difficult to accept the mundanity of the very last scene in light of all that has come before.
To the film’s credit, it deals with a transgender character in a way that is mature yet still manages to preserve a sense of humor. However, it also falls into clichés when portraying how the supporting cast reacts to David’s coming out. Many character types appear in archetypes that can be found in a thousand gay-themed movies and shows: the conservative parents, the well-meaning but still prejudiced husband, the uptight, secretly repressed friend.
Overall, the film is not as groundbreaking as it seems. Despite the beautiful cinematography, “The New Girlfriend’s” plot falls flat of danger.
“The New Girlfriend” will be released in the U.S. on Sept. 18, 2015.
Tony Schwab is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org