“I remember what they told us as kids, ‘Boys are born in cabbages, girls are born in flowers’. Guess I was born in a cauliflower”.
From its very beginning François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend (Une Nouvelle Amie) never pulls any emotional punches, with an opening that spirals perilously into bathetic melodrama, the funeral mixes with the marital, as a young wife and mother is laid to rest in her wedding gown. Her friend’s elegy recounts their childhood right up until the present day, its impending tragedy lingering over the telling of a sun-kissed and idyllic but ferociously close friendship.
Coming close to tearjerker status until some more salient plot points are revealed, when Claire’s best friend, Laura, dies, she vows to watch over her widowed husband, David (Romain Duris), and newly born daughter, Lucie. But falling into a depression at the loss of her childhood friend, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) doesn’t grow close to widowed David until she learns his secret. David has always longed to be a woman, his late wife Laura knew and accepted this, but asked him never to tell anyone.
Although, The New Girlfriend, at times, sets itself up as the more scandalously torrid suspense of Ruth Rendell’s original tale, Ozon’s elision and refusal to dip too far into character interiority frequently leaves it behind for a lightness, comedy and romance amidst sexual forays. But allow yourself to be swept away on Phillippe Rombi’s emotional score and the repeated rather joyous pop renditions of Katy Perry and you might find yourself charmed by Ozon’s mix of Almovadorian gender politics and magnetic drama.
A film most often seen through Claire’s experience, as the societal foil for Virginie/David’s transition, she frequently displays shock and discomfort and she urges him to stop or seek help, while other times supports him as she tries to understand and accept. But in scenes where the pair leave behind their less-than-liberal suburban lifestyle for a gloriously gay cabaret show, The New Girlfriend most successfully hits its theatrical cues.
Duris as David, basks in the limelight of being Virginia and his eyes well with happy tears at his newly awakened femininity. Helped along by Claire, whose own burgeoning grief casts a shadow wide over the film as a whole, it’s a subversive and uplifting rigmarole that creates a fluid, changeable love story between David, Claire and the departed Laura, the origins or endings of which we’re gratifyingly never allowed to pinpoint.
While Claire works out her loss with her newly found friend, David learns the stricter sartorial rules and beauty dictates of a female-gendered appearance. Taken with a gentle tentative stride, often a celebration of the joys of discovering gender, Duris and Demoustier create magic in scenes together.
Kept secretive by circumstance, Virginia/David begins to revel in their ostensible affair, the erotic component of which perfectly placed by Ozon, gradually compacts time, memory and friendship into a conflicted but trans positively inverse Vertigo.
The New Girlfriend opens an ambitious front and centre dialogue about the transgender experience lightly underlined with comedy. With Ozon at his capricious and unwieldy best, again proving himself an elite comic observer, by carefully playing semantics in the rom-com genre.
The New Girlfriend is available on DVD in the UK from September 21st