Friday, October 9, 2015

The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie)

THE NEW GIRLFRIEND (Une nouvelle amie)                   B                    
France  (108 mi)  2014  d:  François Ozon                 Official site [Japan]

Continuing in the same vein as Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie) (2013), Ozon reiterates his views that the conventional middle class lifestyle is empty and meaningless, flooding the screen with a well-edited opening montage that tells the story of two best friend girlfriends, Isild Le Besco as blonde-haired Laura and Anaïs Demoustier as freckle-faced Claire, who follow the traditional path to happiness and success through marital bliss, but something is decidedly missing from their lives.  In typical Ozon fashion, he provides a subversive alternative, opening with a clever scene where a women is being groomed for her wedding to the sounds of wedding music, only to see how he’s switched the mood and she’s really being dressed for her funeral, where the lid of the coffin closes to seal her fate as the film title appears, obviously showing the fate of the old girlfriend, clearing the way for what follows.  While this film is wildly uneven, the Ozon of today seems much more interested in maintaining his enfant terrible status by being an agent provocateur, never afraid of tackling taboo subjects and broadsiding the public, provoking the masses with satiric stabs at whatever is PC (politically correct) for the moment instead of just making a great film.  In one sense, the gay experience is “the new girlfriend,” as it has suddenly blossomed onto the American (and French) landscape by making same sex marriages legal, overcoming all legal challenges, where it is finally the law of the land, though Hollywood and television have been promoting gay characters for decades.  Ozon is the new mainstream, suddenly elevated to a new respectability as a longstanding gay filmmaker who has been unashamedly bold in challenging stereotypical views on gay and straight relationships, offering subversive alternatives for decades.  As the writer of most of his own films, he’s displayed an inventive playfulness often expressed in overly bright daytime colors, where exaggeration and misdirection are often presented as high comedy.  Despite the nature of the subject, where the surviving husband resorts to wearing make up and wigs while dressing up in his deceased wife’s clothes to minimize and maternalize the baby’s fears and anxiety from missing her mother, becoming an increasingly prominent focus of his new life, for the most part this is played straight, with the idea that trying something totally different often produces unexpected results.  While this in no way matches the depth and dramatic power of Xavier Dolan’s ode to the transsexual experience in 2013 Top Ten List #2 Laurence Anyways, this is a more casual presentation, spoofing the outlandish nature of a surviving husband literally transforming himself after the death of his wife into “the new girlfriend.” 

While some have gone feverish with delight over the film’s bizarre central premise, it’s a fairly restrained approach to a difficult subject, and one can’t say Romain Duris is entirely successful in the role, as his slightly embarrassed, overly pronounced smile while dressed in a blonde wig is difficult to gauge, while he couldn’t be more believable as Jacques Audiard’s piano playing hit man in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arête) (2005).  Instead, like many Ozon films, the film is presented almost as wish-fulfillment fantasy, making effective use of Claire’s dream sequences, where for a good part of the film the audience can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s being imagined, which is the most intriguing quality in nearly all Ozon films.   Adapted from a 15-page short story by Ruth Rendell where the outcome is decidedly different, as instead of becoming the best friend, he/she is murdered instead at the first declaration of love.  Ozon read the story nearly twenty years ago, writing an adaptation for a short film, but never obtained the financing.  Unlike other crossdressing classics where musicians disguise themselves as women to avoid detection while on the run from the mob in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), or an unemployed actor becomes an actress to find a job in TOOTSIE (1982) and again in VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982), in Ozon’s story, the husband has a preexisting desire to crossdress even while married, so it is more of an outgrowth of his own distinct personality.  After the death of her best friend, having vowed to look after her surviving husband and daughter, Claire decides to pay a visit to David (Romain Duris), walking in unexpectedly after no one answered the door, only to find David dressed as a women as he cares for his infant daughter, running back out the door in a state of confused anger.  Rather than be honest about it, she lies to her own husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), pretending she was with a girlfriend named Virginia, which is the excuse she uses each time she revisits David, becoming more supportive of the idea as she can feel the sense of gratification David gets by transforming himself into Virginia, eventually helping him find the right clothes and make-up, going out on shopping sprees together, having lunch, and doing the things girlfriends do together.  Easily the centerpiece of the film is an excruciatingly intimate glimpse of gay acceptance in a drag nightclub act performing an ultra-dramatic, anthem-like song about “becoming” a woman, Nicole Croisille’s “Une Femme avec Toi,”Une nouvelle amie - Une femme avec toi (hymne LGBT ... YouTube (4:01), which extends into the evening cocktail hour where they end up on the dance floor at an “anything goes” discotheque. 

All seems right wth the world as Dennis is realizing his dream as Virginia.  The confusion comes when he tries to take it to the next step by proclaiming his love for Claire, unleashing dormant, pent-up emotions, which is a rush of exhilaration for Virginia, while something of a curiosity for Claire, which leads to a moment of truth when a panicked Claire rejects Dennis, claiming “You’re a man!” once again rushing out the door in a state of confusion.  This could go any number of directions, where the best film to ever delve into the dire consequences is Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons (In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden) (1978), arguably his most personal film, where just such a rejection leads a man to undergo a sex change operation for love, only to be rejected and laughed at, later beaten and humiliated by men on the street.  Ozon doesn’t explore the depths, but instead creates an inversion of the original story, where the woman is so repulsed at discovering a man’s body that she murders him.  Instead, this rejection opens a path for Claire, who suddenly discovers her own femininity, wearing make-up and more colorful dresses, where she’s more in touch with her own sense of beauty.  In clear Sirkian mode, the film is not so much about the life of a transvestite, but explores the prejudices and preconceived notions associated with different forms of sexual expression, especially as seen in such a Catholic society as France, where middle class views express open tolerance so long as anything considered objectionable is hidden from view.  It’s here that Ozon mixes dream fantasies with reality, where the Buñuelian merging of the surreal becomes associated with accepting the peculiarities of others.  In this sense, as a kind of idealized dream, the film is a journey of expression, begun at the outset in an extreme close-up with the application of lipstick and make-up, as both best friends eventually discover the woman inside of Claire and Virginia that was lost in the beginning when her real best friend Laura died.  The biggest problem with the film is just how exasperatingly boring all the middle class characters actually are, regardless of their sexual expression, straightjacketed by their economic conformity that defines them in so many other ways.  Work, or any concept of work is completely absent in their lives, where they are completely free to redefine themselves any way they choose.  This is simply not the standard for most people’s lives, who are more centrally connected to their economic circumstances.  Nonetheless, this is another fever dream from François Ozon, a variation on a famous quote from Simone de Beauvoir, Becoming A Woman: Simone de Beauvoir on Female ..., where “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” 

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