Within moments from the start of Francois Ozon’s latest film The New Girlfriend, you get the distinct feeling you’re watching a fairytale. There’s a strange cleanliness about the production design, a smoothness of the camerawork, a heightened sensibility in the film’s score. But underneath this strange world of middle-class fantasy there’s a darkness that’s suggested – a place where sexual desire lurks. And it’s here that Ozon wants to take his audience. For his idea of fun.
“I always want to surprise people,” he says from the plush sofa he is wedged into. “And myself. I want to play.” He smiles, revealing the best of his boyish charm and dark good looks. “For me a film is a game and there is a pact with the audience at the start. It says: do you want to play with me? We all know it’s a story, and although I try to stay in the logic of the story from my perspective, sometimes others get disturbed because it’s not exactly what they are thinking. I know the ending of the story of course, so I can play with viewers’ expectations of where we are going. And in this film, the middle-class fairytale setting is not France, it’s not real at all. I had in mind the narrative codes of a fairytale – like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White.”
The film’s elegant, time-shifting opening sequence introduces best friends Claire (Anais Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) who seal a bond in blood to stay together forever. So when Laura dies young, leaving a young baby and a new husband David (Romain Duris), Claire – who is the child’s godmother – agrees to help. One day she arrives at David’s house to find an unfamiliar woman holding the child. A moment later she realizes that it is David, a secret cross-dresser. But the strange encounter leaves Claire not disgusted or confused, but curious and aroused. With Claire’s collaboration and support David – now also Virginia – extends his fetish to the public world, taking Claire on a journey of desire with him. It’s hard to believe that the idea is based on a short story by Ruth Rendell.
“Of course, I betrayed the short story,” says Ozon with a matter of fact grin. “But as her story is only ten pages long it was clear we would have to change many things for a feature film. The short story is a murder story about repressed lesbian desire. My film mixes genres and tone – it’s a bit like the David/Virginia character. It’s a trans-genre movie shifting from melodrama to comedy to thriller.”
Whilst Romain – who puts in an extraordinarily controlled performance as David – may seem like the central character (he is after all the new girlfriend), it’s Claire’s journey that is more complex. “I wanted to go with the character of Claire,” explains Ozon. “She crosses through many emotions and it’s these I wanted the audience to experience. The transformation for David is obvious, but for Claire it’s a long way for her to travel – to be able to say she’s in love with what David becomes.”
The film also contains one of the most unusual sex scenes, with Claire now so infatuated with her new girlfriend that she’s ready to move to the bedroom. “Of course we are all waiting for the sex scene,” says Ozon – no stranger to this territory in his movies. “When I was writing the script I said to the producer and the people financing the film that this must be the most beautiful lesbian sex scene that you have never seen. But then Blue is the Warmest Colour came out and everyone saw it. It had that amazing lesbian scene!” Ozon shrugs and then leans in knowingly. “Ah, but all my lesbian friends were very upset about that scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour. They said ‘we don’t do sex like that’ and so I asked them to help me make a more beautiful lesbian sex scene. That’s what we have.” Ozon pauses for a moment and then adds: “but it’s more fetishistic and it’s twisted at the end, so it’s quite different.” What’s unspoken – both as I talk to Ozon and in the scene itself – is of course the fact that it’s never really a lesbian scene at all. David is all man, and not gay. It’s a mind-bending piece of cinema as much as a gender bending one.
Which brings us back to Ozon’s idea of play. “I want people to feel that everything is possible in this game,” says Ozon. “It’s a film about the loss of norms and reference points. And it’s a film about mourning and emancipation, about how we deal with mourning. These two characters are able to create a third one to help them overcome their loss. They’re able to become themselves. There’s a motto from Simone de Beauvoir: ‘we are not born women – we become women.’ That’s what it’s about.”