Sunday, April 14, 2024

Movie Review: “The New Girlfriend”

It takes 15 minutes for Francois Ozon’s “The New Girlfriend” to feel, at least thematically, like a Francois Ozon movie. It takes a glossy, extended prologue for the French director to broach the issues of sexual fluidity and liberation that have defined the most notable (and notorious) films in his prolific career, from “Water Drops on Burning Rocks” to “Swimming Pool” to “Young & Beautiful.”

But these 15 minutes reveal a lot. Most of them are presented as a trotting TV-style recap montage, catching his audience up on what we may have missed last season. Claire (Anais Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) meet in grade school and instantly become best friends. We see them frolicking in idyllic, sun-dappled forests, becoming blood sisters in a treehouse, necking with boys in movie theaters. Eventually, they each marry men, Laura has a baby, Laura suddenly falls ill, Laura dies.

It all feels as artificial as a children’s storybook, presented with romantic dolly shots and weeping violins. The scenes feel secondhand, cut-and-pasted from some collective memory bank rather than imagined anew, and it’s hard to accept that one of art-house cinema’s foremost provocateurs would resort to such lazy grammar and contrived storytelling. Is it all a self-conscious act?

When “The New Girlfriend” concludes its facile introduction and settles into its narrative, Ozon the transgressor finally comes out to play. It turns out that Laura’s widow, David (Romain Duris), finds pleasure in cross-dressing, a well-kept secret during his marriage but one that finds full flower upon his wife’s passing. Claire, who promised Laura she would watch over David and his infant girl, discovers David in drag. Keeping this news from her husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaz), Claire herself finds surprising pleasure in indulging David’s feminine persona (which they call “Virginia”)—shopping for clothes, stealing away for lunchtime rendezvous, visiting an LGBTQ cabaret and spending so much time with her gender-bending “new girlfriend” that she too begins to live a double life.

Shattering notions of gender identity is always welcome, especially at a time when such rigid definitions of male, female, straight and gay are viewed by today’s youth as outmoded shackles from previous centuries. “The New Girlfriend” was released in France well before Bruce Jenner’s conversation-starting conversion, but it’s a definite post-Caitlyn movie, existing in the amorphous center of the Kinsey spectrum.

The problem is that good intentions alone don’t make for good movies. The shallow opening stanzas of “The New Girlfriend” are ultimately representative of the movie as a whole. Get past the congratulatory progressivism, and what remains is a broad comedy whose tranny jokes wouldn’t sound out of place in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and whose detour into maudlin third-act melodrama is risibly schematic. Even Claire’s sexual fantasies are contrived, lacking the wild surrealism of Ozon’s previous efforts, or those of his subconscious mentor, Pedro Almodovar. It’s hard to be moved by a film when you can see so transparently through it—wigs and stockings and breast cups and all.

“The New Girlfriend” opens today at Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, Silverspot Cinema in Coconut Creek, Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, Regal South Beach, O Cinema in Miami Shores, and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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