THE NEW GIRLFRIEND (2014) review
written by: François Ozon
produced by: Éric Altmayer and Nicolas Altmayer
directed by: François Ozon
rating: R (for some strong sexual content and graphic nudity)
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: September 18, 2015 (limited)
French filmmaker François Ozon is on my long list of directors I have yet to catch up with. He showed up on my radar after 2003’s “Swimming Pool” – a film I still haven’t caught up with – and although I did see 2013’s “Young and Beautiful” from the writer/director, it’s obvious I have some catching up to do. Now there’s last year’s “The New Girlfriend”, which is finally getting a limited theatrical release after months on the festival circuit. In fact, I had a chance to view it this past May at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, but I do believe that day I had to come up for air and choose which film I’d miss in my day-long viewing. Well, I’m glad I finally caught up with Ozon and his latest oddity.
Ozon adapts a short story of the same name (or “Une nouvelle amie”) from English author Ruth Rendell (who died this past May at age 85) and while it does fall in line within his usual examination of female identity and sexuality, there’s no getting around that “The New Girlfriend” is riding a current wave of transgender revelations – intentional or not. Nevertheless, this story, intimate and revealing in nature and touching on themes of friendship and grief, is the draw here. While the characterizations and portrayals feel genuine, there is a certain air of uncertainty or mystery which lingers throughout that increased my interested in the film, making me more curious (instead of frustrated) as the complicated story unfolded. It’s quite unique in that sense.
Claire (Anais Demoustier) grew up with being best friends with Laura (Isild Le Besco), often being the good friend who stays close and watches as boyfriends come and go. The two eventually find their own spouses, with Claire marrying the handsome Gilles (Raphael Personnaz) after Laura weds David (Romain Duris) and quickly giving birth to baby Lucie. Laura falls suddenly ill though soon after Lucie is born and passes away not soon after. The loss is a huge shock for Claire, who finds it difficult to function. In an effort to maintain an oath she made to Laura, Claire checks in on David unannounced, only to discover him dressed up as a woman in Laura’s clothes. Surprised and uncomfortable at first, Claire hesitantly begins to respect David’s secret and as she maintains a close relationship with David – who she calls Virginia – and Lucie, she starts to see Virginia as a trusted companion, something that was missing with Laura gone. Of course, keeping this friendship a secret means lying to Gilles and putting her own marriage in jeopardy.
“The New Girlfriend” opens with a montage of Claire and Laura, introducing their story and establishing their closeness through chronological flashback. From seven-year-old girls, who connect immediately, leaving their mark in tree carvings and blood oaths. Much like the opening of Pixar’s “Up”, these are poignant memories sensitively covered in minutes, up to Laura’s death. Just as that opening establishes a genuine warmth, there is a natural awkwardness and acceptance developed between Claire and David/Virgina, once Claire gets over her uncertainty. She starts off as curious and involved in David’s life out of a sense of duty to Laura, but soon embraces Virginia – granted, perhaps too soon to feel believable. Claire’s acceptance of her ‘new girlfriend’ is seen in another montage of Ozon’s, this time of the two shopping and going to the movies together for the first time as women.
The new friendship that Claire develops with Virginia is no replacement for the bond she had with Laura, but it is something new that fills that void. It also helps that Claire and Virginia have a history with Laura, which allows Claire a chance to reconnect with her friend and see her in a new way. At the same time, Claire’s acceptance and curiosity is reassuring for David, who feels a sense of freedom that he never had with anyone before. Ozon covers very real conversations between the two new friends, leading to a greater understanding for Claire of how David feels as Virginia and as a woman in general as well as how it feels to have men eyeing her. Virginia has no interest in men, but enjoys advances from them, knowing that she is seen by them as an attractive woman.
Ozon also deftly captures the toll of the transition from man to woman. As Claire and Virginia meet discreetly, we see how Virginia needs Claire’s friendship even more as he navigates his gender. Claire casually emphasizes, “It’s not easy being a woman” when she notices a disheveled Virginia forgot to maintain her five-o-clock shadow. There is definitely an excitement in Claire as she feels needed and valued – not that her relationship with her husband is unsatisfying – if anything, her mentoring of Virginia gives her a sense of purpose that enlivens her marriage.
The performances of both Claire and David/Virginia are crucial for “The New Girlfriend”. The material has to be treated seriously and not for laughs or complete awkwardness in order for viewers to buy into such jarring changes for the characters. Both Duris and Demoustier are committed, convincing and comfortable in their mult-layered roles, with both actors carefully conveying individual gender and sexual evaluations. While at times, it feels a bit too convenient to the plot for Claire to be able to spend so much time with Virginia – at one point taking off on a weekend getaway – there is nevertheless a curiosity as to what motivates the two to continue to spend time together.
There’s almost a hint of Almodovar or Lynch to Ozon’s tone, something I noticed in “Young and Beautiful” as well. It’s a feeling that something will be revealed around any corner and indeed there are layers peeled here as they story develops. Ultimately, this is a film about grief, trust and friendship and granted it gets a little unbelievable at the end, especially with the responsibility of raising six-month old Lucie all but drops completely, it’s still gently handles hot topics. Going in blindly as I did with “The New Girlfriend” is advised and I suppose there’s no getting around what the movie is about in a review, but I must say I was impressed that I didn’t see any reveals in the film’s trailer. That’s a rarity.