The New Girlfriend
Taking cues from the more understated works of Pedro Almodóvar and the more restrained undertakings of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend (2015), an effortlessly entertaining examination of the intricacies of gender identity, is a beaut of a black comedy that manages to both be scrumptiously operatic and mysteriously unnerving.
The film stars the tenably fragile Anaïs Demoustier as Claire, a young housewife slowly recuperating from the recent death of her best friend, Laura (Isild Le Besco). Feeling socially hopeless and oddly guilty — she figures it unfair that she, childless, should live, while Laura, who recently gave birth, should be the one to go — Claire’s not sure what direction she’d like her life to move toward next. Her husband, Gilles (Raphaël Peronnaz, making the most of a seemingly gutless role), is abidingly supportive, but as it goes for most women living with vaguely handsome men additionally married to their job, there’s a facet that’s missing from their union that makes it even harder to recover.
While out jogging one morning, Claire decides to stop by Laura’s house to check in on her husband, David (an excellent Roman Duris), who, like Claire, has been struggling in the moving on with his life. But what was supposed to be a harmless visit turns into something more when Claire walks in on David feeding his child — dressed as a woman.
Initially, her reaction is disgust, despite David’s assurances that his crossdressing is merely a way for him to destress and that Laura knew full well of the pastime before they got married. But after she takes the time to process does she find herself intrigued by the secret aspect of David’s identity, looking to help him in exploring it more comprehensively.
Before long are she and David — who starts to prefer his female alter ego, Virginia — inseparable, spending afternoons shopping and weekends out in the country. But all the time spent helping her new best friend come to terms with his preference for the female gender is she also dramatically affected, realizing things about her own sexuality she might have never thought were waiting to be investigated within her.
Coming from an inexperienced director might The New Girlfriend have become a missed opportunity, ruined by potential insensitivity or a tonal error to derail the convincing relationships that rest at the film’s center. But because the movie is written and directed by François Ozon, the adaptable artiste behind Swimming Pool (2003) and In the House (2012), The New Girlfriend is a note perfect study of the details that rest between friendship, romance, transformation, and sex. Vivid in its characterizations and tightly in control of its tizzy of tones — mostly high strung melodrama combined with Hitchcockian tension — not a moment is inhibited by a line, a scene, that doesn’t work. Everything about it blends together just right, and that’s certainly an effect of Ozon’s self-possession behind the camera and his marked analyzations of the recurrences that often make way in human nature.
This isn’t the first time Ozon has traveled down the complex roads of sexual identity. His Wikipedia page has an entire section dedicated to the number of his films dealing with the many shades of sexuality, and that’s perhaps an attestation as to why The New Girlfriend works so well. This is difficult material to portray with believability, and yet Ozon finds a deft balance between soufflé lightness and stunning clarity. Incredible how the film’s so sensitive and attentive toward its topic but is also so blithely engaging. This is a masterpiece that doesn’t so much feel like one because its brilliance is so offhanded — it’s cinematic sagaciousness disguised as popcorn entertainment. A