By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco, the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
Popular and prolific French auteur Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool; In the House) has always used genre subversion as a means of exploring other types of subversion, whether sexual, moral, or in the case of The New Girlfriend, gender. After her lifelong best friend Laura dies following childbirth, Claire (Anais Demoustier) learns that Laura’s grieving husband David (Romain Duris) is a closet transvestite finding comfort in his dead wife’s clothes. Claire agrees to keep David’s secret from her own husband, discovering new pangs of extramarital desire as David assumes the female identity of Virginia; but is Claire attracted to David/Virginia or to the ghost of Laura? From its opening closeups of a costumed bride slowly revealed to be an embalmed corpse, The New Girlfriend wants to keep you unbalanced and curious, but like a lot of Ozon films, it never quite gets out of its own head. Adapting a short story from mystery writer Ruth Rendell, Ozon offers the set-up for an old-school, door-slamming French sex farce, but instills the material with a swooning romanticism and overtones of Hitchcock-ian kink. Unfortunately, nothing in The New Girlfriend ever matches the operatic emotion and locomotion narrative of its own prologue, a laser-fast outburst of girlhood obsession, blood oaths, repressed desire, and sudden switches of fate – it’s like the opening montage of Infernal Affairs reconfigured for romantic comedy.