The nearly five-minute montage that opens The New Girlfriend is stridently, brazenly trashy: a sunny, treacly frolic through all the stations in the lifelong friendship between Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco), replete with over-the-top makeup, laughably demonstrative camera pans, and a piano-and-guitar score with occasional strings for extra slushiness. Yet this barrage of schmaltz is so obviously knowing, it’s neither a melodramatic pleasure in itself, nor capable of properly conveying the heartbreak that Claire feels now that Laura is in her coffin. Director François Ozon is never willing to fully engage with the ridiculousness of his material, resulting in an uneasy mix of wry distance and unearned emotion that makes the film shuffle when it should be sashaying.
In an effort to grapple with her grief, Claire turns up at the palatial home of Laura and her husband, David (Romain Duris), hoping to help out with their daughter, Lucie. There’s seemingly no one home, until Claire hears Lucie’s gurglings, tries the door, and ends up stumbling in on David, in full female attire, tending to the baby. David assures Claire that dressing up in Laura’s clothes is merely about giving Lucie the maternal presence she now lacks, an assurance that rings true neither for Claire nor the viewer. Sure enough, Claire and Virginia, as Claire ends up dubbing David’s alter ego, are soon exchanging fashion tips and going on shopping trips, with the fact that Virginia copies Laura’s hairstyle and wears her perfume awakening confusing urges in Claire too. In no time at all, Claire is having to lie to her husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), who’s already openly speculated about David’s sexuality and seems to have a foible for transvestites himself, about all the female bonding sessions.
Regardless of the setup’s shrilly artificial nature, there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been channeled into an affectingly overblown exploration of the porous boundaries between love, desire, and friendship. But Ozon is incapable of establishing the continuity of tone that would allow this to be achieved, encouraging us to laugh at his characters one minute and emote with them the next in a way that renders identification impossible. The farcical scene in which David “amusingly” forgets to remove his lipstick upon a surprise visit from his mother-in-law thus feels like a cheap dig at his expense, while a later, presumably genuine scene at a gay club co-opts the viewer for an embarrassingly earnest outpouring of emotion when David sees a drag queen sing of her joy at becoming a woman. For all its flaws, Laurence Anyways, which this film superficially resembles, did at least defend its protagonists from ridicule at all costs, a clarity of stance quite at odds with that of Ozon.
A similar unevenness also extends to the plot, which cries out for the constant forward motion of a telenovela. Yet most of the main narrative developments are telegraphed well in advance with a typically knowing wink, meaning the film is largely spent waiting for them to finally happen, whether David’s understanding of his identity, Claire’s obvious attraction to David, or Gilles’s gradual introduction into the nominal love triangle. The few curveballs Ozon does manage to sneak in ultimately function like archly sudsy twists rather than illuminating surprises, particularly a convenient third-act car accident that magically solves all conflicts. There’s also a feeling that the world Ozon’s characters inhabit is determined by the needs of the narrative instead of any real-life consistency, with Claire, for example, quite happy to go on a public shopping trip with Virginia as the plot dictates, even as she shrivels up in embarrassment when he proposes they meet near her workplace, a relevance-sapping capriciousness that seems born of laziness rather than design.
When it comes down it, all these narrative and tonal deficiencies needn’t even be a stumbling block in the sort of material Ozon is peddling here, as no one looks to a soap opera for stringency. But whether chintzy girlhood yearnings, cheaply provocative sex scenes, or cloying deathbed reconciliations, everything goes down a lot more smoothly with a bit of sincerity. If you want to trade in trash, you’ve got to commit.