If you remember Swimming Pool, Francois Ozon’s stylish and thorny and leisurely 2003 thriller, you may ask yourself: How has it taken it so long for him to do an adaptation of a Ruth Rendall piece? Now, with The New Girlfriend, stylish and thorny and leisurely 2015 thriller, a cinematic take of one of Rendall’s short stories, they have finally found each other.
The movie opens with a funeral. Laura is dead, her husband David (the always taciturn Romain Duris) and daughter are left devastated. Her best friend from childhood Claire (lovely Anails Demouster) swears to be there for them. After all, she always has been, since her and Laura’s best-friends-foreverdom was sealed a lifetime a go and the two couple’s stories existed more or less in parallel (Laura always being slightly ahead, in life and in death, it should be noted) until now.
One day, Claire decides to to check in on David and finds him dressed in his dead wife’s clothes, tending to their child. David assures her that Laura knew of his alter ego, was OK with it, that he is not gay. The two forge a somewhat expected friendship (Claire after all is looking for a surrogate for her Laura shaped void, and David’s Virginia fits into it quite nicely) and a somewhat unexpected romance (sexual identity is reality show fodder these days but it is still not something to be taken lightly). Once you get into this territory, the story could take on several turns, cinematically speaking: the Vertigo tinged Hitchcock psychological play, the Almodovar psycho-sexual frolic, the Chabrol game of middle class hide-and-identity-seek. But, Ozon is a filmmaker all his own and the final product is equal parts subversive and classic, chilly and funny, with little mischievous cherries on top sprinkled throughout (not the least of which is the employment of Philippe Rombi’s bubbly, romantic score).
Duris and Demouster are well suited for this game: him a lanky, caddish man, her a porcelain, neurotic cross between Rampling and Huppert. They enter this dance of temptation and desire, confusion, and lust. Where David ends and Virginia begins is never quite clear and while Claire throws herself into it, a sense of dread and anticipation washes over the audience. This, of course, cannot possibly be a sustainable life model? Or can it?
If there is one problem with Ozon’s latest it is that it never quite decides between the chilly thrills Rendall’s story provides, and his own tendencies for social satire and playful humor. Maybe keeping the audience as baffled and confused as the characters is part of the game. Regardless, this is a great, little, slightly nasty slice of cinematic cake. Enjoy.