Pictured: Anaïs Demoustier and Romain Duris in 'The New Girlfriend'
François Ozon has gone from being France’s sexual bad boy to its most consistent minor master. His film The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie) braves the waters of trans identity, showing how Claire (Anaïs Demoustler) becomes confidante to David (Romain Duris) who starts out embracing his secret desire to wear women’s clothes then goes full femme.
Because Ozon is, at heart, a provocateur, this is an every which way story of acceptance. It explores depths of friendship, love, and social privilege through a series of breathtakingly lovely scenes about death, loneliness, and fidelity. Flashing back to Claire’s childhood, her very close, nearly lesbian, affection for schoolmate Laura (Isild Le Besco), establishes a lifelong friendship that extends to honoring Laura’s marriage to David and their daughter Lucie. Claire’s oath to Laura creates an existential bond.
Ozon challenges politically-correct assumptions about marriage, about being trans, being masculine, being feminine. In the luxe, rarefied environment of bourgeois Paris and the haute bourgeois Creancy, the place of Claire’s girlhood idyll with Laura (and where Claire celebrates David becoming Virginia), Ozon works out his longtime interest in rocking the boat of established social conventions. His style evokes Douglas Sirk melodrama — but without Sirk’s gloating irony, just feeling. Claire and David delight in freedom that money and license permit. Scenes in the Creancy mansion compare to the fabulous wealth on I Am Cait. David confesses: “I dream of life in the country. A peaceful, less stressful life.”
That lack of stress marks Ozon’s visionary progress. In The New Girlfriend, we’re a long way from when gay filmmakers needed to be avant-garde to shock the middle-class (épater le bourgeoisie). We’ve also come a long way from when the once-counterculture The Village Voice condemned Ozon’s 2006 Time To Leave for promoting a gay man’s desire to be a parent. Ozon’s mastery takes “shock” for granted. Now he displays a provocateur’s noblesse oblige through Claire’s compassion and David’s own open-hearted sexuality. Every sequence breaks ground in blithe, comic fashion: The opening childhood reverie with Sapphic little girls in pink uniforms is as fantastic as the nightclub drag-act where Claire and Virginia find community.
Ozon’s new provocations show debt to his gay cinema forbearers. David/Virginia’s transition answers Fassbinder’s painful, powerful In a Year of 13 Moons: Documentary shots of the drag audience at Disco Amazone (love zone) provide a fitting, 21st century, real-life Fassbinder tribute; there’s gravity and grit beneath the glitz. As Virginia, David resembles Carmen Maura, the spectacular trans muse of Almodovar’s Law of Desire, and early shots of David dressing his wife’s body recall Almodovar’s very moving The Skin I Live In.
It’s no coincidence that The New Girlfriend is adapted from a novel by Ruth Rendell — the source of Almodóvar’s voluptuous Live Flesh. Ozon keeps the prospect of trans identity alive artistically, philosophically and humorously through Demoustler and Duris’ performances—Duris relaxes into femininity as freely as Jack Lemmon did in Some Like It Hot, an insight as worthwhile as Demoustler’s womanly range and as appealing as Raphael Personnaz who plays Claire’s husband Gilles, another embodiment of the Ozon alpha male.
Can any trans movie surpass the childhood empathy of David divulging: “They told us as kids, boys are born in cabbages, girls are born in flowers; guess I was born in a cauliflower”? Or his wish to, “Do everything I’m not allowed to do as a man.”? That’s Ozon the artist talking. His genre-fuck is more impressive than a routine gender-fuck. And when little Lucie finally appears — the offspring of love — her salamander eyes suggest a prepubescent Charlotte Rampling, Ozon’s first muse.
First of the upcoming movie season’s group of trans films, Ozon’s The New Girlfriend isn’t just the frontrunner, it is a hard one to beat.
The New Girlfriend has a limited U.S. theatrical release beginning September 18. Watch the Red Band trailer below: