The intimacy of female friendships and the unpredictable ways that people grieve are at the core of The New Girlfriend, but its surface is focused on sexier, kinkier matters. A superb psychological drama, the latest from French filmmaker François Ozon (Young & Beautiful, In the House) threatens to go campy at any moment but instead is dark, erotic and thoughtful. This may not be what most people would expect from a movie about a cross-dresser, but the surprises don’t end there.
Anaïs Demoustier plays Claire, a woman whose best friend Laura just died. Through a quick flashback, we see the arc of their friendship: Since childhood, Laura was always the prettier, more popular girl, putting Claire in the position of being the sidekick, looking up to her friend. At Laura’s funeral, Claire spends part of her eulogy promising to stand by Laura’s despondent husband, David (Romain Duris), and their baby daughter as they cope without her.
In truth, Claire and David have never been particularly close—there was no animosity, merely distance—but when she starts checking in on him, she makes a shocking discovery, finding him at home caring for the baby while dressed in his dead wife’s clothes. It’s then that David confesses something that only Laura knew: He loves cross-dressing. It’s not that he’s gay, David explains, but that he’s always felt closer to women. Taken aback but also touched that he confided in her, Claire offers to take him shopping, helping him explore this side of his personality. (David had stopped cross-dressing when he met Laura, but her death has reactivated his passion.)
Initially, The New Girlfriend (based on Ruth Rendell’s short story) feels like it’s going to be a fluffy, silly comedy, but Ozon takes several left turns that complicate and enrich his story. The cross-dressing ends up being merely an excuse to explore different kinds of relationships’ ability to fulfill needs we can’t always articulate.
As Claire and David (who is dubbed Virginia when dressed as a woman) become closer, it begins to impact on Claire’s marriage to her husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), a perfectly good guy who’s unaware of Virginia’s existence. Lying to Gilles by saying that she’s spending more time with her sister, Claire isn’t having an affair with David, per se, but there’s something undeniably emotional and secretive about their growing bond.
But what is it exactly? For both Claire and David, the bond seems to be an unexpected opportunity to reconnect with Laura. Claire has lost a best friend, but she’s gained Virginia, a surrogate who was as closely involved in Laura’s life as she was. (And unlike Laura, Virginia looks up to Claire, seeking her advice on fashion and grooming.) As for David, it’s a chance to hold onto the woman who loved his dead wife as much as he did. (At one point, he confides in Claire that he always felt that the two women were closer than he could have ever been with Laura.) Nobody really grieves in The New Girlfriend because everyone’s in denial: They’ve found new playmates to serve as a substitute.
But denial can only hold so long. As much as Claire and David want to pretend that they’re over Laura’s death—and that David really is Virginia—reality keeps intervening. The closeness of Claire and Virginia’s friendship extends to discussing cute shoes and hot dresses, going to nightclubs together and sharing an intimacy that no one else in either of their worlds can understand. Their friendship transcends sex, but Claire starts feeling an odd stirring for David that makes her more excited to see him than be around Gilles. Does she want to sleep with David? With Virginia? With Laura?
The New Girlfriend teases us mercilessly as Claire and David go further down the rabbit hole of their gender confusion and misplaced longings. Though Ozon isn’t as bold as Hitchcock or Almodóvar, he enjoys playing with his story’s psychosexual elements, hinting at the unbridled desires eating away at the characters beneath their polite, buttoned-down exteriors. And the performances strike a similar chord. Duris isn’t showy as Virginia, exuding a vulnerability and confidence of a man in search of himself. At the same time, his pretty features are so alluring that we can understand how David/Virginia becomes seductive to Claire. Demoustier is marvelous portraying the modest Claire who finds herself reawakened by this unlikely new presence. It’s a performance of subdued sexiness, a shy woman discovering her inner swan.
The film keeps twisting and twisting, digging into its characters’ unspoken cravings until it ends on a perfectly ambiguous note. After so much tease, The New Girlfriend pays off its flirtation boldly, suggesting that getting through grief means learning that we can’t go back to the way things were. Accepting that new reality, though, can be tricky, too.
Director: François Ozon
Writers: François Ozon (screenplay); Ruth Rendell (short story)
Starring: Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, Raphaël Personnaz
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.