French filmmaker Francois Ozon is no stranger to the melodrama, having a career that is filled with excellent ones. Yet, his latest film The New Girlfriend finds his usually astute handling of high-level theatrics a tad off, if still engaging.
Things begin rather elegantly with a montage of the friendship between Claire and Laura. These two childhood friends played in the fields, brushed each other’s hair, lent shoulders for first heartbreaks and more as they grew up in unison. Each married, Laura first. She too had a child with her husband David (Romain Duris). Then Laura got sick, died and left David alone to raise an infant. Ozon’s movie really begins here, with an adult Claire (Anais Demoustier) mourning the person who knew her more than anyone.
Claire’s husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaz) thinks that Laura seeing David would do her well. She’d get to vent with somebody else who knew and loved Laura. The visit doesn’t go as planned. With an unlocked door welcoming her in, Claire enters David’s home, only to find him in one of Laura’s old dresses, complete with wig and make-up. Claire is shocked, concerned that her best friend was perhaps lied to, confused about why David is doing it and many more complex feelings.
The New Girlfriend is a movie that has difficulty finding its tonal rhythm, which is surprising for Ozon. He is usually rather nimble with his blend of melodrama and humor. His characters can be a bit blunt, but befitting the world they are within. The problem stems from Claire, who is quite well played by Demoustier. Her attitude shifts come off as a tad severe. Her evolving friendship, acceptance and intrigue in David’s feminine nature, which she ends up dubbing Virginia, comes in fits and spurts. It climbs and crashes like an erratic stock-market, making the character a narrative device and less a person, particularly when things grow increasingly erotic. Additionally, these blips give The New Girlfriend too many scenes of emphatic emphasis.
There is much to enjoy between the issues. The whole ensemble works well, with Duris baring all of the joy of discovering that which has been hidden away so long. A scene where Virginia is, seemingly for the first time, surrounded by like-minded people who’ve found delight and struggled in similar veins, is moving. Personnaz too is notable in the smaller, supportive role of Claire’s husband.
Ozon also has a way with what lies underneath. Never stated, Claire clearly had an affection for Laura that went beyond friendship. Letting the camera sit on Demoustier’s face as she fights the melancholic emotions of her best friend’s marriage says so much without a line of dialogue. This one shot leads to an array of possibilities in the plot with each passing act. It’s too bad it doesn’t quite congeal, for the set-up, players, dialogue and music all come together well; the execution of the story missteps too often for it to be an outright success.