French twist: Anaïs Demoustier stars as Claire. Photo: IMAGE.NET
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Dark comedy The New Girlfriend is a ravishing portrait of a family after death

The films of François Ozon are polymorphously perverse.

The New Girlfriend (15)
dir: François Ozon

François Ozon has made 15 feature films since 1998 but it is only now, with The New Girlfriend, that he is showing his face on screen. In his minute-long cameo, he gropes a cinemagoer’s leg in the dark, arousing in the recipient shock, but also delight and desire. It would be fair to say Ozon has been doing something similar to audiences for his entire career. He specialises in the cinema of the polymorphously perverse. Right from his 1996 short A Summer Dress, he was visualising sexuality as an empty beach on which our desires could be scrawled in the sand. The tide would erase these impermanent yearnings, leaving us free to start all over again the next day.

The New Girlfriend continues in that vein. It begins with a death that is also a rebirth: a woman named Laura is being interred in her wedding dress as her doting husband, David (Romain Duris), and their baby daughter prepare for life without her. Faint alarm bells may already be ringing. Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir Laura starts with the death of a Laura who then turns out to be not so dead after all. Then there’s Faye Dunaway as a photographer plagued by portents of murder in Eyes of Laura Mars, and Laura Palmer washing ashore at the start of Twin Peaks in her own plastic bridal gown (she’s the “something blue”).

Ozon’s film is gentler than those works – essentially it’s a comedy with erotic undercurrents – but he extends mischief to every level. It is for this reason that I must be circumspect about the plot; there are revelations that you would be sorry to know about in advance, though anyone who has read the Ruth Rendell story from which it is loosely adapted will have an inkling. This isn’t Ozon’s first brush with Rendell. When he made his playful thriller Swimming Pool, she was one of the models for the main character, a brittle British crime author. He even proposed that she write the story that the novelist is seen working on in the film. (“She answered by return, very frostily, assuming that I was asking her to novelise the screenplay,” Ozon recalled. “She told me she was perfectly capable of writing her own stories, thank you.”)

What can be said without spoiling The New Girlfriend is that Laura’s best friend, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), becomes closer to David than would ever have been possible while Laura was alive. It isn’t exactly an affair, though it involves a lot of deception, sneaking around, double reflections in mirrors and incriminating close-ups of lipstick.

For the flashbacks, Ozon has cast Isild Le Besco, who has the unmistakable tight eyes of Cindy Sherman, as Laura. That can be no accident in a film about the revealing properties of disguise, which is steeped, like Sherman’s work, in references to femmes fatales and Hitchcock blondes. As in Hitchcock, the point-of-view here is rarely straightforward or devoid of voyeurism. When we see gay male sex, it is witnessed by Claire and it involves her husband, which would be unusual enough, except that it then transpires to be one of her daydreams. Emboldened by that, she goes cruising in the men’s showers at a gym. If there’s a flaw to Ozon’s democratic approach to sexuality, it is that he sometimes transplants gay male behaviour on to a heterosexual female and expects it to stick. Caught up in the raptures of his erotic imagination, he can also lose sight of the details of everyday life. Parents won’t fail to notice that David has an awful lot of time on his hands for someone who is the sole carer for a young baby.

Ozon pushes his film over the line from transgressive to radical by insisting that his characters’ dreams, however unorthodox, can be realised within mainstream society. In 1998, in his first proper feature, Sitcom, he broke apart the family unit with wicked abandon. But in recent pictures (Le refuge, Potiche, In the House) he has been reconstructing it carefully in a queer image. The New Girlfriend is sumptuously shot by Pascal Marti in a blazing autumnal palette that can transform a simple visit to the handbag section of a department store into a feast for the eyes. The film’s portrait of a new sort of family, comprised of any bits and bobs that happen to take our fancy, is arguably even more ravishing.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist