By Hans Pedersen, February 2016 Issue. Back to Echo’s Desperado 2016 coverage.
The latest movie from François Ozon (The Swimming Pool), one of the hottest French directors around, The New Girlfriend is a visual treat with a compelling story that breaks down boundaries and barriers without being pedantic.
This French-language film is loosely adapted from a short story by Ruth Rendell and, while it’s not a slapstick musical romp, it feels like we haven’t seen so much gender and sexuality at play since Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria.
In an opening montage we learn about two girls, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco), who grow up as close friends. As adults, they both find husbands, but Laura dies soon after giving birth.
Days after the funeral, Claire visits her late friend’s husband, David (Romain Duris), but nobody answers the unlocked door. Hearing the newborn baby making sounds inside, she walks inside and finds David dressed in woman’s clothing, nursing his baby, Lucie.
David explains that his late wife knew about his love for cross-dressing, and that the desire to put on the pink chiffon had subsided during their marriage, until Laura’s death.
“The pain of her absence was gone” when wearing her clothing, he tries explaining to Claire. Playing both mother and father to baby Lucie, David feels happier in long hair and a lovely beige ensemble, and begs Claire to help him keep his secret.
While Claire is judgmental at first, she agrees to venture out on a shopping excursion with her “new girlfriend” and even offers up a new name: Virginia.
Once christened with a name, Virginia finds liberation in the real world and hits the town. The two go on more shopping excursions and dance at a gay discothèque, all the while spinning lies to Claire’s handsome husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz).
There’s a real affection between Claire and Virginia, similar to the kind of warmth that Claire had once shared with her late friend, Laura. The power of female bonding is a recurring theme throughout The New Girlfriend.
Even the title, The New Girlfriend or Nouvelle Amis, contains a certain ambiguity in both French and English, describing two girlfriends who hold hands and go shopping, but have no sexual relationship.
Ozon also manages to bust through the false association that people continue to make between cross-dressing and homosexuality as well.
Fluid sexuality, nonetheless, permeates the story. During the disco scene another gal hits on Claire, and she seems to enjoy her excursion into same-sex affection. And there’s also some homoerotic imagery involving David and Gilles.
Satisfying and intelligent, The New Girlfriend is an outstanding movie filled with warmth and moments of humor that delves into territory that’s long overdue for exploration. Ozon is a skilled director whose sharp eye and clever mind help make this an insightful film.
The New Girlfriend will screen at 1:50 p.m. Jan. 31 as part of the Desperado LGBT Film Festival.