The New Girlfriend
Directed by François Ozon
Opens September 18th
Transgender people have suddenly become visible in ways that they’ve never been before in American culture. The cynic in me wonders if some of this newfound public profile is just a trend launched by bored reality TV producers—one suspects that TV shows like Becoming Us and I Am Jazz will be off the air in three years’ time, while trans people themselves will still be around and struggling. However, French director François Ozon has long been sincerely interested in all kinds of LGBT subject matter; he first depicted a transgender character very early in his career, in 2000’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks. The New Girlfriend chronicles a person’s progress from living as David (Romain Duris), an occasional cross-dresser who treats his penchant for women’s clothes as a shameful hobby to be kept behind closed doors, to Virginia, a full-fledged trans woman.
Ozon adapted The New Girlfriend from a 15-page story by British crime novelist Ruth Rendell. True to form, Rendell’s story ends in violence. Ozon’s take on this tale is far more happy-go-lucky. Rendell’s work has previously adapted by both Claude Chabrol and Pedro Almodóvar; The New Girlfriend feels like a combination of their influences.
Childhood friends Claire (Anais Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) are extremely close. The latter grows sick and dies, just after giving birth to a daughter, Lucie. Her husband David is left to take care of Lucie all by himself, although Claire and her husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaz) are willing to help as much as they can. One day Claire knocks on David’s door and is shocked to discover him in drag.
In the original “The New Girlfriend,” Rendell generally came off as a liberal, but the violence of her story suggested an inability to fully accept transgenderism—an inability alien to Ozon’s sensibility. While Rendell and Ozon share a Hitchcockian perversity, the filmmaker has a love for camp all his own. Ozon likes to tease us with hints of same-sex desire. His film takes place in a world where makeup and women’s clothes have the power to lift someone back into physical health. In life and cinema, trans women’s lives are often extremely difficult. Ozon is generous enough to imagine a path around their usual obstacle courses.