The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie)

France (2014) Dir. François Ozon

No-one can accuse François Ozon of being a director who plays it safe. With the central issue of his latest film being a rather prominent one in the news of late, to handle it with anything other than sensitivity would be a dangerous move.

Based on a short story by Ruth Rendell, the death of Laura (Isild Le Besco) hits her husband David (Romain Duris) and lifelong best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) hard. Having made a promise to look after David and their baby daughter Lucie, Claire takes time off work to help David and deal with her own grief, making an astonishing discovery about David in the process.

It’s annoyingly difficult to discuss the film further without spoiling the surprise but it is essential to understanding the rest of this review so either look away or now continue reading.

David is a cross dresser. He did this before he married and Laura knew, with the proviso he never did it in public. With baby Lucie missing his mother, David found dressing up as Laura had a positive calming effect on the child.

Claire becomes David’s only confidante, naming his alter ego Virginia, and breaks Laura’s rule of going out in public with Claire by his side. But the time spent together causes Claire, the mousey type prone to wearing trousers over skirts, to make some discoveries about her own sexuality and understandings of being a woman. David isn’t gay but does enjoy the attention and experience of being a woman, finding it liberating and quickly becomes more comfortable in his feminine guise.

Ozon’s exploration into sexual and gender identity is a curious affair that serves as an indicator of how far we have come in the past few years in terms of acceptance and tolerance towards cross dressing and trans gender issues. Admittedly there are some moments where things veer towards the comedic but Ozon does so with a devilish glint in his eye.

The story – at least to this writer – really seems to be about Claire and the changes she goes through in her attitude and her own sexual feelings. Growing up with Laura, Claire was always in her shadow, the less attractive friend when the boys were around, bridesmaid at Laura’s wedding, finally marrying Gilles (Raphael Personnaz) with a pregnant Laura as Matron of Honour. There was no jealousy but one can sense the inferiority complex in Claire.

It is ironic then that when Claire and Virginia hit the streets it is the tall blonde that gets all the attention while Claire is again reduced to status of plain Jane companion. However Virginia gives Claire the confidence to change her appearance and just as David feels more comfortable as a women, Claire feels more comfortable with David as Virginia and some conflicting ideas begin to pop into her head.

Ozon weaves a complex web of deceit and confused feelings out of Rendell’s short story, challenging all perceptions and opinions about cross dressing head on in a balanced manner that avoids preaching. David isn’t being held up as a totem for this particular peccadillo but stands as a symbol for understanding and acceptance. Even Claire tells him he is sick and a pervert at first but this unusual journey forces her to re-evaluate her ideas of sexuality.

The narrative remains non-judgemental nor does it even presume to justify or proffer an explanation as to what makes a man want to dress like a woman. Ozon avoids any psychoanalysis and Freudian probing into David’s leanings to let the story unfold as a study into how love or sexual attraction is capable of being nurtured in such a convoluted situation where the lines of gender are blurred.

Conversely it isn’t a flag waving celebration for transvestism either in the way that maybe someone like Pedro Almodóvar might present this story, although one can detect a touch of Almodóvar in the scene in a gay club where a trans singer entertains the cloud, including Claire and Virginia. This is as flamboyant as the film gets, preferring a more conservative (as such) approach.

It’s possible that some trans viewers may find this film to be a further example of transphobia or another ignorant slight towards them but honestly it doesn’t feel that way to this writer, instead. Even in the lighter moments David/Virginia comes across as a character to laugh with and not at, with the joke being on the other person in the scene. By giving this subject a mainstream airing maybe Ozon has enlightened some people as to the struggles of people with gender concerns.

The final act sees the tone shift to melodrama leading to an ending which both answers questions and asks some more, clouding the issue further while closing the tale on a positive note. With Ozon’s reputation for oblique endings this is likely to again provoke rather than satisfy some.

Of course the credibility of the entire film rests on the two principal performances, with the pressure on Romain Duris to convince in drag. Due to his slender frame he is able to wear a dress to the envy of many women, but his pronounced overbite doesn’t help facial features. However his performance is suitably perceptive, replete with all the right nuances for the dual role of David/Virginia.

Yet it is Anaïs Demoustier who commands our attention as Claire, the wallflower who blossoms before our eyes yet remains wracked with uncertainty and lack of confidence in her own sexuality. It’s a studied essaying, rife with subtleties and genuine humanity to both the character and the dilemma she faces.

The New Girlfriend is very much a “make your own mind up” film which precludes me from making a recommendation. Some will love it, others will hate it or misinterpret the intention. After Ozon’s last few films falling a little short, this feels like a return to form with his trademark boldness and a touch of well meaning mischief.