Throughout his career French director Francois Ozon has shown a great interest in both sexuality and femininity. Those two things come together in The New Girlfriend, which is based on a story by Ruth Rendell, but is certainly not a murder-mystery.
Claire (a brilliant performance from Anaïs Demoustier) is devastated when her best friend since childhood, Laura, dies. She has promised she will look out for Laura’s husband, David (Romain Duris), and their young child, but due to her grief she puts off this duty. When she finally decides to visit she is shocked to discover David looking after his baby while dressed as a woman.
Initially Claire is horrified, but slowly she’s comes to accept David’s transvestism (which is what he describes it as at that stage), and a new friendship emerges, where she and David, now Virginia, go shopping and help explore something which increasingly grows as a new identity for Virginia. However, to the rest of the world Virginia is still David, but that inevitably starts to cause problems, as does the fact the new friendship causes Claire to re-evaluate her own life and sexuality. Eventually Virginia and Claire must confront whether there may be something more brewing than just friendship between them, and that if there is, what does that mean?
Those hoping that The New Girlfriend will be an accurate depiction of the difficulties trans people face in the modern world will find the movie is something rather different. While it doesn’t pretend it’s easy, the film is a gentler, more romantic and sometimes humorous story than it is a searing drama. Ozon is less interested in the warts and all reality and more in looking at the often philosophical side of the issues involved, such as how gender and sexuality are related to one another, and how they are expressed.
It’s the sort of film where you may not agree with every moment and some of its hint towards what may be going on a psychological level, but equally there’s the sense The New Girlfriend isn’t presenting these things as absolute truths, but as possibilities to think about. For example, early on David suggests dressing as a woman is almost a way to keep his wife close to him, while Claire suggests it’s about his own pleasure and may be a sexual ‘perversion’. Later it starts to look at Virginia’s life as fully fledged-fledged woman, while hinting and curious about things such as why someone would suppress that part of themselves to start with and also how they choose to express it.
Allied to that is a look at sexuality, with Claire beginning to question her marriage and her role within it. Interestingly some of the more complex ideas about sexuality, gender and how they interact come through Claire. This leads to a scene that will horrify some (although it is dealt with later), where Claire and Virginia must finally resolve whether something romantic has developed between them. Claire’s seemingly transphobic reaction is actually more complex that it first appears, as it’s less about Virginia’s identity and more about the journey Claire has quietly been on, and that acceptance goes far deeper than the surface.
There’s also an interesting side to the film involving Claire’s husband, who considers himself a modern, liberal man, but whose attitudes towards gender variance and sexuality reveal an assumption about the superiority of cisgender, straight men. It shows these attitudes can be difficult to deal with, as the person who has them may have no idea that they hold a prejudiced superiority, but there is the possibility of change, partly by exposing people to things they’ve only known about theoretically up until that point.
Some people will undoubtedly find aspects of The New Girlfriend problematic, as it’s more interested in ideas than answers, sometimes allowing things to hang in the air that you may not agree with or which you think hint at prejudiced attitudes. However, it’s not prejudiced, it’s just trying to probe and explore some very complex issues and get the viewer to question their own ideas, in a relatively gentle, entertaining way. It’s the sort of movie that may not be ‘warts and all’, but it may get some people who haven’t really thought all that much about the issues it raises to start to considering them, and perhaps even those who think they’ve got it all sorted will realise there’s more to sexuality and gender variance than they realised.
Overall Verdict: Although some will feel it’s simplifying the reality, The New Girlfriend is an intriguing exploration not so much of gender variance and sexuality as-lived, but of the ideas and issues surrounding them. It offers hope but largely offers up questions and possibilities in an entertaining and very watchable way.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac