Dark comedy The New Girlfriend is a ravishing portrait of a family after death

The films of François Ozon are polymorphously perverse.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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