If anybody ever suspected that the extraordinarily prolific François Ozon wished to be viewed as the French Almodóvar, his latest film, Une Nouvelle Amie (The New Girlfriend), amply confirms those suspicions. Not only (like the Spanish director’s Live Flesh) is this movie inspired by a Ruth Rendell book, but the mixture of transvestites, people in comas, wistful flashbacks to childhood friendships and depictions of a consumerist society makes it feel like a bizarre amalgamation of Almodóvar’s entire œuvre.
The only problem is that Almodóvar does it a whole lot better. To take just one example, a scene in a club portrays a drag queen performing a song while numerous other drag queens in the audience mouth the words and imitate her gestures; this seems to be directly lifted from Almodóvar’s High Heels, a film that, though largely unheralded, remains my favorite of all his work. Yet, whereas the scene in the Spanish movie manages to combine high camp with touching profundity (much of High Heels is concerned with imitation and transmission), Ozon turns it into a somewhat lachrymose and unsubtle identification of one person in the audience with the singer on stage.
Those reservations aside, there is much to admire in Une Nouvelle Amie. The story, which constantly confounds expectations, revolves around two childhood friends, Claire (compellingly played as an adult by Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco), both of them married to wealthy men. Laura falls ill and dies soon after giving birth to a daughter.
Having promised to support both Laura’s husband David (Romain Duris) and baby after Laura’s death, Claire stumbles upon David at home fully cross-dressed. His initial attempts to explain that he wore Laura’s clothes in order to comfort the child change to an admission that he had had a prior interest in cross-dressing and that Laura knew about it, asking him only never to tell anyone and to keep his predilection confined to the house.
Claire’s initial distaste gradually shifts to fascination, as she keeps David’s secret and meets him frequently, eventually going out shopping with him cross-dressed as “Virginia.” Inevitably, Claire’s husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) begins to suspect she is having an affair with David. Ozon is at his best when depicting the ambiguities of the relationship between David and Claire. Is she falling in love with David, Virginia or her dead schoolfriend Laura?
The central performances in this film are uniformly good, and Duris excels in what must surely be his most taxing role to date. In particular, he captures beautifully the absolute sincerity of David’s desire to dress as a woman.
Less successful is what I can only assume to be Ozon’s attempt to give the movie the ambiance of a sweeping melodrama. Unlike Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven, which is a deliberate homage to Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, at times Une Nouvelle Amie comes across as a trashy sitcom, in no way helped by the syrupy piano-based soundtrack composed by Philippe Rombi.
As commendable as Ozon’s diversity and boldness are in Une Nouvelle Amie, my immediate wish after seeing it was to watch Almodóvar’s High Heels again. Perhaps that says it all.