François Ozon certainly knows how to provoke. That hardly makes him unique among filmmakers, and it doesn’t entirely explain why I so look forward to each of his movies.
As with any gifted artist who takes bold chances, the French director’s provocations don’t always click (I offer as evidence the cartoony 8 Women). But when they do, each satiric barb and serpentine twist is rooted in clear-eyed compassion. His most affecting films have surprised me with new ways of understanding the world, whether the subject is a widow in denial (Under the Sand), a voyeuristic teacher (In the House) or a pregnant addict (Hideaway).
Angelenos will have a chance to view Ozon’s latest feature, a delectably tantalizing tale called The New Girlfriend, well ahead of its September release. The movie takes its LA bow on July 19, as the closing-night selection of Outfest Los Angeles. One of three titles screening at the festival as part of the Ford of the Road summer series, it makes for an exquisitely crafted and beguiling midsummer night’s dream, one that bends gender and genre alike.
Ozon’s loose adaptation of a Ruth Rendell short story sets out to question, if not dissolve, categories and labels. The story is at once a romance, a psychological thriller and a fairy-tale fantasy, its references to “Sleeping Beauty” playfully portentous but never flippant. Most of all, Girlfriend is a deep dive into melodrama. If, like me, you’re apt to roll your eyes when things get hot-house hammy, rest assured that this is not your run-of-the-mill soap opera.
Like Pedro Almodóvar (All About My Mother) and Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven), Ozon infuses up-to-the-minute sensibilities into the hand-wringing theatrics and social commentary of classic ’50s sagas like Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession. It’s always good to see complex female lives depicted onscreen, and I find Ozon’s unsentimental portraits especially exhilarating.
As in other Ozon films, notably Under the Sand (which rejuvenated the career of Charlotte Rampling in striking fashion), there’s a ghost at the center of the new movie, a mourned character whose absence defines the action. (And her name is Laura; whether intended or not, I gratefully took that as a nod to the classic 1944 noir mystery of the same name.) One of the things I most appreciate about Ozon’s work is that he doesn’t buy into the pop psychology of “closure,” a notion that has never rung true for me. Instead he gives us vibrant depictions of the messy idiosyncrasies of grieving.
Teaming for the first time with actor Romain Duris, Ozon conjures an especially vibrant character study. I’ll admit that when I first saw this magnetic performer onscreen years ago, he reminded me fondly of an ex. But it’s his unconventional charisma that has made Duris one of my favorite actors, one who can hold the center of an intense drama as persuasively as he charms in light comedy. He expands his impressive range with Girlfriend. He and costar Anaïs Demoustier bring a compelling chemistry to their roles, he as the dead woman’s husband, she as her best friend. In this nuanced tale, either one of them might be the title character.
At a moment that finds Caitlin Jenner in the spotlight, there’s an obvious topicality to The New Girlfriend. But though it would be easy to slap a “transgender” label on the film, Ozon and his actors tap into something not so easily summed up. Life, with all of its unpredictable pain and joy, sneaks up on the central duo. And with a mix of artifice and deep emotion and a narrative that dips and dives, this inventive film snuck up on me. It’s a lovely surprise.
Outfest’s closing night is Sunday July 19 at the Ace Hotel. Click here for tickets and more info.