French director François Ozon's frisky update of Ruth Rendell's psychological drama is a little too nice for its own good

François Ozon and the late Ruth Rendell is a great match of sensibilities: it promises the French director’s winking subversion, wedded to the late crime writer’s slippery command of psychological twists. 

The New Girlfriend, Ozon’s latest pert semi-thriller, springs its main surprise quite early, and much of the film’s pleasure derives from not twigging it beforehand. To be forearmed against Ozon’s wardrobe-raiding fun and games here would be to cheat them of impact: it’s best to go in cold.

This much is safely known. Anaïs Demoustier and Isild le Besco play childhood friends Claire and Laura, whose devotion and mutual dependency is established in a frisky prologue. On the same night, out clubbing, they both meet the men they’ll marry. Claire is the first to become a parent, but then she falls ill – gravely, terminally ill – and her husband David (Romain Duris) is left as a single father, distraught in the throes of grief.

Duris, a star whose toothy, hirsute charisma makes him feel like a jungle cat let loose in his movies, is at his slinkiest and wittiest here, while also managing to layer emotional pain into a plot mostly fuelled by outrageous, Almodovar-esque contrivance.

The secret life he and Demoustier start to act out, witnessed only by Laura’s newborn daughter Lucie, is winningly romantic in its offbeat way, but also begs certain questions about the happiness of Claire’s domestic arrangements, and these aren’t the only ones it begs.

The shy, freckled Demoustier, always just a fraction less innocent than she seems, may put you in mind of a young Isabelle Huppert: one of her earliest parts was playing the latter’s daughter in Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2002). Sneaking around with David, she’s drawn to an alternative family model whose kinky and unconventional qualities clearly delight Ozon.

Then again, it’s a too-easy cheat to make Claire’s husband (Raphaël Personnaz) such an uncomprehending if handsome boor. The more truly inclusive and daring picture might have brought him in on the fun, or at least teased him a little more with proclivities he may never have known he’d had.

In tweaking Rendell’s unfashionably creepy ending for a new era, Ozon feels very on-message, resolving the situation with an impeccably nice, debatably wishy-washy fantasy of progressive contentment. You can thoroughly appreciate the gesture, while wishing he’d played it more ardently, and for keeps.