Tone has always been an issue for François Ozon, the hit-or-miss filmmaker behind “Swimming Pool,” “In the House,” “8 Women” and “Young and Beautiful.” His work can be playful and dark, comical and serious, silly and harsh, often at the same time. When it works, as in “Swimming Pool” and the underrated “In the House,” the results can be wonderfully mysterious and wildly seductive. But when it doesn’t, the results are awfully messy. “The New Girlfriend” is, without question, an Ozon mess. It is an endearing mess, in a way, thanks to its actors, but make no mistake, “The New Girlfriend,” which made its world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, is one of Ozon’s weakest efforts to date.
The film starts promisingly enough, with the bold image of a blonde woman in her wedding dress—in her coffin. This is Laura, the character whose presence, even in death, impacts every person onscreen. As Laura’s best friend Claire (French star Anaïs Demoustier, also appearing at TIFF in the more well-received “Bird People”) recounts, Laura was the kind of individual who could light up a room, and electrify a school hallway. She was also clearly the dominant friend. We note that it is always Claire who brushes Laura’s hair, pushes her on a swing, etc. It was also Laura who married first, to David (Romain Duris), and became a mother first, to young Lucie.
Inevitably, it is also Laura who passes away first, and her best friend makes a vow to watch over Lucie and David forever. But Claire and Laura were so close that she has difficulty checking in with them following Laura’s passing. Finally, at the urging of her husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), Claire stops by. What she finds is…surprising. A blonde woman is holding young Lucie. When she turns to face Claire, and the camera, she is revealed to be David, clad in makeup, wig and one of his late wife’s dresses. This is a jarring development for Claire, no less so when David explains that Laura knew of his predilection and allowed it, at home. Lucie has even found some comfort in this, David says, since the sight and smell has reminded her of her mother.
In these scenes, and for the remainder of the film, Ozon uncomfortably mixes comedy, seriousness, respect and revulsion. This has worked before, especially in 2012 TIFF entry “In the House,” but in adapting this Ruth Rendell short story, he seems to have hit the emotional shuffle button. Claire and David—she dubs him Virginia when in women’s clothing, and the name sticks—develop an interesting closeness, one that never existed when Laura was alive. But we vacillate wildly, from somber scenes of Virginia cradling Lucie to an utterly bonkers, “Mannequin”-esque let’s-go-shopping montage, set to Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold.” (It’s the second appearance in the film for Perry’s early hit.) Soon, Gilles starts to wonder what’s going on between David and Claire, Claire starts to wonder whether she is more interested in spending time with David or Virginia, and David starts to wonder exactly what he is feeling for Claire.
The audience, however, starts to wonder where this tiresome experience is going. As the story becomes increasingly ridiculous, Ozon’s hold on the material becomes looser and looser. Only his actors keep “The New Girlfriend” watchable. Duris has the trickiest role in the film, as he must keep Virginia from being too over-the-top and maintain believability. He does this, and, in fact, gives one of his best performances. It is often difficult to tell whether Ozon wants us to laugh at Virginia or admire her, but Duris never lapses into self-parody. His performance is far better than the material. Demoustier, meanwhile, is good-natured and loving at all times, if perhaps a little too wide-eyed. This is a rising star, and she, too, does fine work. But they cannot save “The New Girlfriend.” By the time a near-tragedy occurs, it is simply hard to care. The concept of the film could have been played several different ways, from farce to high-drama to Hitchcock-ian thriller. Ozon decides to try it all, but in the end doesn’t pull off any. He’ll be back, of course, but let’s hope next time he has a clearer sense of direction. [D+]