From the psychosexual thriller “Swimming Pool,” to the candy-colored comedy of “Potiche,” French director François Ozon is full of surprises. Over twenty years into his career and he cannot be pinned down to any particular style, but the chances are always good that he’ll be telling a story with a strong female lead character.
In “The New Girlfriend,” that lead is the remarkable Anaïs Demoustier (“Elles”). She plays Claire, a young woman whose best friend Laura has tragically died. The story begins with Claire speaking at Laura’s funeral and we get a flashback sequence that illustrates not only their closeness, but how their lives were intertwined. These were lifelong friends who were inseperable, with Claire becoming the godmother to Laura’s first born child Lucie. A baby that, at just a few months old, is now left without a mother.
Inconsolable, she tries to reach Laura’s husband David (Romain Duris, “Mood Indigo”), but cannot get him on the phone. She heads over to his house and discovers a secret that will change her life forever – David is wearing a wig, makeup and Laura’s clothes while feeding Lucie. Initially, he claims that it’s only to calm the baby, but later admits that his late wife knew of his fondness for dressing as a woman. Claire has difficulty accepting it at first (“You’re a pervert,” she declares), but soon dubs his female persona Virginia.
Ozon could have easily taken this story down a campy path, but plays it pretty tightly as a melodrama. Softly shot, there is an emphasis on the fact that David isn’t gay, he just truly enjoys crossdressing. His motivations are not fully understood by Claire, but she enjoys Virginia’s companionship. It can never replace her bond with Laura, but offers her with an immediate replacement. It isn’t until Claire finds herself lying to her husband so that she can spend more time with Virginia that things get complicated.
Likely to be the only arthouse release this fall with multiple uses of Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold,” Duris and Demoustier are so engaging that even an ending that is perhaps a little too tidy cannot bring the film down. “The New Girlfriend” cleverly explores ideas of sexual and gender identity while breaking down a few stereotypes along the way.