After making his name with off-the-wall, usually black, French comedies like “8 Femmes” and “In The House,” François Ozon has lately turned to particularly thoughtful looks at the performance of femininity – his earlier films explored this, too, but in less of an upfront way. Last year’s “Young & Beautiful,” about a gorgeous seventeen-year-old girl, Isabelle, who decides to go into prostitution in her spare time, got a lot of flack because it ignored the harsher realities of her chosen after-school job.
But those missed the point: Ozon was playing with heightened realities to pose questions about the limited sexual options available to young, and especially beautiful, women. Isabelle lost her virginity to a boy who couldn’t care less if she was there, and even the nice boys her age either project constantly onto her or can’t meet her sexual needs – sometimes both. At least having sex for money is a clean transaction for her, no emotional hand-holding, and it’s oddly the best available option.
Ozon’s latest film, “The New Girlfriend” takes on equally weighty issues but with a lighter, comedic touch. When Claire (Anaïs Demoustier, “Bird People”) accidently stumbles on her best friend Laura’s (Isild Le Besco) widow, David (Romain Duris), dressed in women’s clothing, she has a hard time coping. The trouble isn’t so much his outfit, but the fact that it’s behaviour that defies easy categorization. It would be fine if he were gay or transgender – those are labels we know how to accept. The trouble with David is that he’s a heterosexual man, who also likes to wear skirts and lipstick.
His late wife knew about it – he just hadn’t felt the need to put on heels while she was alive. Once she died, his proclivity came out of dormancy, partly to provide a feminine presence for his newborn baby. Achero Mañas’s “Todo lo que tú quieras” also explored a similar situation, although his lead wasn’t clearly heterosexual, and it was more about his relationship with his daughter and the cruelty of the prejudiced masses. Here, it may take some time for David’s friends to get used to him as a woman, but there’s little doubt that they ultimately will.
Although neither Claire nor David were particularly close when Laura was alive, they begin to bond over their shared grief. David, who in women’s clothes goes by Virginia, fills the gap of a best “girlfriend,” and Claire can initiate him into the world of shopping for women’s clothing. It’s Claire who emboldens him to go out in public dressed as a woman.
Eventually, their relationship gets complicated. When Claire has a sexual dream about Laura, we realise that her feelings for Laura weren’t just purely platonic – there was always a power imbalance since Laura seemed to always be one step ahead of Claire for every major milestone. And Claire and David start to develop feelings for each other; they even make it to a hotel for an intense make-out session, with David in women’s dress, until Claire spots his penis and freaks out.
It’s not as if Claire isn’t into men. She’s married to a handsome businessman, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), and we see her enjoying sex with him. Gilles also defies certain stereotypical gender roles: the first time we meet him he’s in an apron, having just finished cooking Claire an elaborate dinner. Cooking is one thing, but there’s still a line that he draws to distinguish him as a virile man. Anticipating Gilles’s close-mindedness, as well as feeling a little bit guilty for her complicated relationship with Virginia, which borders on the sexual, Claire initially lies to Gilles about David, telling him he’s gay because it’s a simpler explanation.
Although the film deals with serious subject matter – how our constant need to put labels on people and sexuality can actually be damaging – it’s still as bright and breezy as Ozon’s sillier films, like the hilarious “In the House.” There are many laughs to be gotten out of David’s transformation into Virginia. One day he goes out covered in scruff, having forgotten to shave, and Claire has to point it out. He delights in high heels, and he has to be reminded that he might want to speak in higher, more dulcet tones than his usual, deep voice, if he’s to pass for a woman. And there’s a touching friendship that forms between David-as-Virginia and Claire, at once comforting and potentially sexual. In some ways, he is to Claire what Laura never could be – he’s a heterosexual man who’s interested in her both as a girl friend and a girlfriend.
Dressing up in skirts, heels, and lipstick, and learning to sashay about in a feminine way is becoming a rite of passage for serious film actors; it’s long been tradition for men to play women on stage. Although Duris is not nearly as attractive as a woman as either Gael Garcia Bernal (“Bad Education”) or Cillian Murphy (“ Breakfast on Pluto”), he can sway his hips just as convincingly. And maybe his homeliness is part of the point, a reminder that his character is actually a man, and a heterosexual one.
The list of generally accepted labels may have expanded in the last thirty years, to comfortably include gay and trans, but the need to label hasn’t become obsolete yet. Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy” explored the implications of this on a pre-pubescent girl who longed to play with the boys: was she just a tomboy pushing up against gender stereotypes, a lesbian, or transgender, and was she even old enough for us to accurately label it at all? With “The New Girlfriend,” Ozon reminds us that defying labels isn’t something we outgrow, but often a natural part of a person’s identity, of any age.