Love and tragedy are inexorably linked in François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend, adapted from Ruth Rendell’s Edgar-winning short story. It’s in the speech Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) delivers at the funeral of Laura (Isild Le Besco), pledging to care for her best friend’s husband and infant daughter and declaring her undying love with a raw intensity that’s embarrassingly intimate. As Claire’s relationship with Laura’s husband, David (Romain Duris), develops into something she never expected, that feeling of devotion and dread deepens.
Claire is shocked to discover David dressed in his late wife’s clothes, but intrigued enough to offer encouragement. She names this new female presence Virginia, and treats her as a stand-in for the lost Laura.
French writer-director Ozon (In the House) excels at re-contextualizing outré behavior, and his melodrama illustrates the benefits of gender fluidity. Mousy Claire becomes the dominant partner while embracing the feminine accoutrements she’d ignored while living in her ethereal friend’s shadow. An emboldened Virginia expresses the vivacity that David kept under wraps, and a marvelous Duris makes them distinct individuals, demonstrating a palpable disappointment when her exuberance is sacrificed to his reserve.
Ozon falters by sticking primarily to Claire’s perspective. She vacillates between joy and fear as playful secret outings with Virginia trigger unnerving sexual fantasies. Her husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), plays the hapless straight man while David craves Claire’s acceptance. Her change of heart is more important than Virginia’s emergence, and Ozon sacrifices his sharp portrayal of grief and rebirth to clumsy convention.
The New Girlfriend
Directed by François Ozon
Cohen Media Group
Opens September 18