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story.lead_photo.caption Claire (Anais Demoustier) and David (Romain Duris) team up for tennis — and other things — in Francois Ozon’s The New Girlfriend, a French comedy of domestic manners with serious undertones.

Based loosely on a short story by the late British crime writer Ruth Rendell, Francois Ozon's The New Girlfriend might seem at first glance an opportunity for broad comedy, akin to Robin Williams' film Mrs. Doubtfire or Tom Hanks' television series Bosom Buddies. After all, its prime feature is a cross-dressing male with a 5 o'clock shadow.

Yet the film we're presented with is more delicate and unsettling than that premise suggests. Like Pedro Almodovar (who used a Rendell story as the basis of Live Flesh), Ozon is more interested in observing the quantum paths of desire than providing a neat moral tale about the crazy world in which we live. Set mainly in a French suburb that feels oddly North American -- the houses are new, the cars are Japanese -- The New Girlfriend is a sleek and delectable entertainment that strikes an unsettling note as it explores the mutable natures of friendship and romance.

The New Girlfriend

88 Cast: Romain Duris, Anais Demoustier, Raphael Personnaz, Isild Le Besco, Aurore Clement, Jean-Claude Bolle-Reddat, Bruno Perard

Director: Francois Ozon

Rating: R, for some strong sexual content and graphic nudity

Running time: 108 minutes

It begins with a breezily edited montage depicting the life-long blood-bonded friendship of two little girls, Claire (played as an adult by Anais Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco). They are inseparable, but Laura is the leader -- more popular with boys, she marries first, to David (Romain Duris). When Claire subsequently marries Gilles (Raphael Personnaz), it feels like she's trying too hard to catch up. But tragedy strikes as Laura falls ill and dies, leaving David to raise their newborn daughter, Lucie.

This sequence is marvelously conceived and executed, with Ozon nodding to Brian De Palma with a wonderful overhead tracking shot and Philippe Rombi's sudsy score signaling a melodramatic heightening of reality. Throw in some disconcerting scenes of Laura's corpse being dressed for her funeral (in her wedding dress) and the stage is set.

For what, we still can't be sure. But there's a stunning moment, after things are beginning to settle into a routine, when Claire, the godmother of Laura and David's child, decides that her private mourning has been selfish and, determined to offer David her help with Lucie, walks in to find him, dressed in Laura's clothes, with the child.

Her first reaction is repulsion -- "You're a pervert!" she shouts -- but she's really more curious than outraged. As David explains his compulsion -- it has nothing to do with his sexuality, he's not gay -- she listens. Laura knew about his yearn to cross-dress, David explains, and she married him anyway. And while he was married, the compulsion receded. Now that he's bereft, it has returned.

Claire notices that Lucie responds well to David in drag, and her tolerance seems to embolden him. Soon he has adopted a feminine alter ego, Virginia, who becomes a genuine girlfriend to Claire. Things are further complicated when the "girlfriends" become sexually attracted to each other.

Were it not so subtly played by Duris -- who, while never looking feminine, masters the physical attitudes and gestures of femininity -- and Demoustier, The New Girlfriend might have collapsed under its showy conceptual weight. But Demoustier makes Claire an infinitely fascinating character. Her relationship with David/Virginia is haunted by the absence of a woman they both loved, and questions of transference and conflation surface. And was Gilles just a convenience, the next step in Laura and Claire's game of follow the leader?

While the conventional note sounded at the end of the movie is not particularly satisfying -- again, some of us are likely to identify with the solid good guy who is left out at the end for being insufficiently dashing -- The New Girlfriend is an intelligent investigation of hearts that don't know quite what they want.

MovieStyle on 11/06/2015

Print Headline: The New Girlfriend


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