François Ozon is to Claude Chabrol as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are to John Wyndham.
John Wyndham is a post-war British science fiction writer who has long been tarred with the masterful brushstrokes of Brian Aldiss who dismissed his work as a series of cosy catastrophes. The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ stems from the fact that Wyndham was terribly fond of narratives in which everything winds up being destroyed except for the novel’s protagonists and the middle-class lifestyle and values to which they cling. For example, The Day of the Triffids opens with a meteor shower that blinds the majority of the British population. Hoping to make their way out of London, the protagonists wind up being trapped by a mad visionary who is building a new civilisation in which the sighted are manacled to the blind and forced into polyamorous relationships. Needless to say, the characters wind up escaping to the Isle of Wight where they meet up with other sighted individuals and pursue what we are lead to believe will be a more conventional middle-class lifestyle. Fear of change and yearning for the familiar is also present in Wyndham’s later novel The Midwich Cuckoos in which humans are impregnated with human DNA resulting in the emergence of a group of super-powered children who wind up being destroyed before their powers can pose a threat to the rest of humanity. One of the more interesting things about The Midwich Cuckoos is that it was published in 1957, six years before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created The X-men, a series of comics in which super-powered youngsters fight to change the world for the better.
All three writers used science fiction to expose the instability of the status quo and explore the possibility of revolutionary change. However, while Jack Kirby and Stan Lee seemed to welcome these changes with open arms, John Wyndham struggled to see beyond the confines of his own middle-class existence.
The well-educated child of rural pharmacists who moved to Paris for his studies only to discover a love of cinema, Claude Chabrol first made his name as a film critic before following his contemporaries out of the magazine business and into the world of art house film. Early films such as Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins may bristle with the town-and-country animosity of a man who never considered himself Parisian but the films that made him an immortal all speak to the fragility of middle-class identities.
Like many worldly and privileged people, Chabrol was both drawn to and repulsed by the kinds of lifestyles that would have been considered abnormal or unacceptable by ordinary middle-class people. Les Biches – the film that began his most celebrated period – involves bisexual women, gay men, and an assortment of misshapen love triangles that speak both to the ‘straightness’ of Chabrol’s lived experience and his desire to understand what lay on the other side of propriety. By today’s standards, Les Biches seems rather old fashioned as Chabrol presents non-heterosexual relationships as being not just different but downright alien.
Chabrol’s inability to empathise with Les Biches’ characters may explain the rapprochement with the crime and psychological thriller genres that followed. Indeed, while Les Biches suggests that middle-class identities dissolve into something alien and beautiful, films like The Unfaithful Wife, The Beast Must Die, and Just Before Nightfall all suggest that the destabilisation of middle-class identities begins in sex and ends in violence. Many of Chabrol’s finest films are defined by their ambivalence in so far as they function like psychological mysteries that lavish attention on beautifully enigmatic characters before inviting us to make a leap of the imagination that will help us to understand why the characters felt compelled to do the things they did. This approach to the question of social and psychological otherness is particularly evident in his late-stage classic La Ceremonie, in which two peculiar young women make friends and wind-up murdering the middle-class family who showed them kindness. Why would someone do such a thing? Chabrol doesn’t understand, cannot understand, and must understand.
François Ozon is a director who has always been at ease with the forms of love and affection that lie outside the boundaries of conventional middle-class living. His first film Sitcom describes a family who descend into sexual transgression after the family patriarch brings home a small caged rat. The insane and disproportionate nature of the family’s reaction to the new pet echoes Chabrol’s ideas about the instability of middle-class identities but Ozon dares to suggest that the geeky teenage son might be happier having orgies in his bedroom and that the grumpy teenage daughter might very well be better off as a vicious dominatrix.
Like Chabrol, Ozon’s films frequently revolve around murder but, unlike Chabrol, Ozon chooses to depict these murders as either cathartic (as in Swimming Pool) or simply as the growing pains of a new – and stronger – subjectivity (as in In the House or Jeune & Jolie). When characters do remain wedded to the old status quo (as in Under the Sand) it is inevitably treated as a sign of emotional stagnation and psychological morbidity.
Ozon’s last film The New Girlfriend is an interesting point of comparison as it not only deals with a new subjectivity emerging from the ruins of conventional middle-class lives, it also positions Ozon’s tanks in Chabrol’s front garden by being not only an adaptation of a story by one of Chabrol’s favourite writers but also an adaptation that replaces the blood-soaked ending of the source material with an ending that is beautiful, empowering, and supremely progressive.
The film opens with a young blonde woman (Isild Le Besco) being helped into a wedding dress. At first, it feels as though you’re being dragged through a hoary old transformation montage but the lighting is flat, the woman isn’t moving, and it soon becomes obvious that the young woman is actually dead and being laid out in her coffin.
From there we are whisked back to the young woman’s childhood when she is introduced to a new school and made to sit next to a little red-haired girl. Shy and a little apprehensive, the pair look each other up and down before smiling: a friendship is formed. Ozon then gives us a wonderful and completely dialogue-free precis of the young women’s lives and how they grew into adult hood. Despite the lack of dialogue, Ozon manages to communicate the idyllic nature of the girls’ friendship and how their different personalities strengthened rather than undermined their friendship. Laura, the more confident blonde, was the first to try new things and experiment with boys while Claire, the more tentative red head, was there to console but also to learn. As the sequence draws to an end we see Claire looking a little bit sad when Laura finds a man and decides to settle down. This sadness is beautifully ambiguous as it speaks not only of sadness about the loss of a friend and the end of an idyllic childhood, but also of regret about something that might have been. This feeling of regret (and Claire’s reluctance to acknowledge it) is what drives the film forward.
The dialogue arrives as Laura’s family and friends assemble to bid her good-bye. After getting married and having a baby daughter, Laura succumbed to an unspecified illness that left a hole in the hearts of both her best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and her husband David (Romain Duris). Utterly Claire promises to look after not only Laura’s daughter but also her husband. Fast forward a few weeks and the grief has shrivelled into low-level guilt as Claire realises that she hasn’t yet bothered to reach out to David. As the pair live quite close together, Claire decides to drop in on her best friend’s husband and walks into his house to find him dressed as a woman.
The UK trailers for The New Girlfriend tried to keep Duris’ cross-dressing a surprise and while there’s something to be said for ‘discovering’ what Duris looks like in drag, I think the trailer – when combined with the fact that the film is based on a short story by Ruth Rendell – might have created the impression that The New Girlfriend is some sort of psychological thriller when it manifestly isn’t. The New Girlfriend is a story about love, acceptance, reluctance, and how some emotions keep us tethered to the past while others project us into the future.
David explains that Laura had known about his cross-dressing but that his need to do so had drifted away the more time he spent with Laura. Now without Laura and alone with a baby who is settled by the smell of her mother’s perfume, David has fallen back into the habit. Embarrassed and outraged by the perceived slight against her best friend’s memory, Claire calls David a pervert and storms out the house. However, when her own husband returns home, she instinctively concocts a cover-story and keeps David’s secret.
This phase of the film is defined by the tendency of people to over-explain themselves: David is a widower who chooses to cross-dress in the privacy of his own home so it’s not immediately clear why he feels the need to explain not only his history of cross-dressing but also the stuff about the baby refusing to settle without a feminine presence. I doubt that babies who are not yet old enough to sit up on their own would be clued in enough about our concepts of gender and family to expect particular perfumes, haircuts and styles of clothing. Similarly, Claire’s elaborate condemnation of David combined with the quite elaborate lies she concocts to protect his secret suggest a desire to keep real emotions under guard.
In hindsight, David’s decision to over-explain his cross-dressing and Claire’s decision to elaborate on her emotional reactions speak to a process of negotiation: David is desperately lonely and doesn’t want to either deny his cross-dressing or lose Claire. Claire is embarrassed by what she discovered about her best friend’s husband but she is not yet ready to let her friend go by destroying her fledgling bond with David. In the wake of this frantic ritualised signalling comes a willingness to engage and accept.
Claire does not just help David to improve his cross-dressing technique, she names his female identity thanks to the cover story she told her story. However, having so legitimised the existence of Virginia, Claire finds her new girlfriend to be quite high maintenance as Virginia demands that Claire take her shopping. These early stages of Claire and Virginia’s relationship are beautifully rendered as Claire takes it upon herself to mute her own femininity while explaining to Virginia that a trip to the shops does not necessarily merit the wearing of a satin cocktail dress. Indeed, it is only once Claire and Virginia have reached the shops and begun enjoying each other’s company that they begin performing their gender at full volume. However, Claire’s worries about Virginia’s perception of femininity resurface when she allows herself to be groped at a cinema.
Part of what makes The New Girlfriend so interesting is the fact that while the plot is dominated by David’s transformation into Virginia, the film’s real protagonist is Claire: the repressed, middle-class woman who is forced to come to terms with not only the emergence of Virginia but also the awakening of her own long-buried and poorly-processed sexual desires.
Claire’s desire for Virginia is rooted in her thwarted desire to have sex with her best friend. Neutered by Laura’s emphatic heterosexuality, the desire has resurfaced thanks to the bizarre sexual alchemy of Laura knowing about David’s cross-dressing and David cross-dressing in Laura’s clothes. Virginia and Claire soon realise that there is more than friendship between them but they deal with it both by making jokes and by suggesting that Claire spending time in secret with Virginia is somehow less of an abuse of trust than her secretly spending time with David. The absurdity of these interlocking justifications becomes evident when Claire’s husband realises that she lied to him about where she was spending her weekend.
The reason the explanations ring hollow and absurd is not only that Claire and Virginia have been trapped in a poorly thought-out lie but also that the emotions and identities of the two women are clearly in flux. At this point in the film, David is still a person who can be named and Claire is unclear on whether she desires David or Virginia. David himself seems confused as his relationship with Claire is tainted not only by the halo of his relationship with his wife but also with the need for someone to validate and legitimise his emerging identity as a woman. At this point in the film, nobody knows how they feel because nobody is entirely clear on whom they are supposed to be. Ozon cuts straight through this uncertainty with a sensational performance of Nicole Croisille’s “Une Femme Avec Toi” by a drag performer who not only brings tears to the eye but also shakes free all sorts of new feelings: Words don’t matter, names don’t matter… trust how you feel.
The weekend over, Claire and Virginia hastily arrange a meeting in a hotel but the sexual tension turns ugly when Claire’s reluctance to accept Virginia’s reality and play on her terms sends her out onto the street and under a truck. The film’s ending is pure melodrama but the image of a little girl walking home holding hands with two mothers (one of whom is pregnant) more than pays it off.
The Ruth Rendell short story that inspired this film suggests that Rendell’s worldview was probably a lot closer to that of Chabrol than Ozon. In Rendell’s story, David is discovered cross-dressing and this leads first to friendship and then to sex. However, once the sex has been had, David takes off the make-up and explains that he isn’t actually a woman, which prompts his lover to stab him in the throat. Not because of the betrayal but because the relationship had encouraged the woman to realise her identity as a lesbian and a lesbian does not have sex with men. When a tension emerges between the world and her characters’ perceptions of the world, Rendell chooses to have that tension resolve itself through violence. Ozon takes a different approach first by having Virginia assert her nature as a woman and then by deliberately glossing over the consequences for Claire’s husband, a man who promised to love Claire only to be deceived and (presumably) dumped because the woman he married decided that she wanted to be someone else.
As a gay man who presumably had his own coming-out experience, Ozon understands that middle-class identities are not worth killing for. The world changes, changes bring pain and uncertainty, but they also bring the potential for happiness to people who had been incapable of being happy with the way things were. As an up-lifting melodrama, The New Girlfriend follows the emergence of Virginia and Claire’s acceptance of her own sexuality and it glosses over the consequences of those changes because this is a world in which change is both possible and desirable. Unlike Chabrol, Ozon is willing to look beyond the pain and uncertainty to what might very well be.