François Ozon is a clever filmmaker, and even when he’s just doing setup, he’s up to something. In the opening credits of his new film Une nouvelle amie (or, as it’s being called here, The New Girlfriend), we see what first seems to be the dressing of a bride, only to eventually reveal itself as a corpse being dressed in wedding apparel. It is the body of Laura (Isild Le Besco), a very young woman who has left behind a husband, David (Romain Duris), a baby daughter, and a grief-stricken best friend, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), who speaks at the funeral of how they met when “we were only seven, but we knew we’d be together forever,” prompting a virtuoso montage that summarizes their entire friendship in a swift, efficient series of images. Among these images are the most familiar, even clichéd, of young female BFF-dom: blood in the palms, brushing each other’s hair, etc. The filmmaker isn’t just establishing the length of Claire and Laura’s bond; he’s acknowledging the familiar way we visualize female friendship, a perception the ensuing film will turn on its head.
Claire has made a pledge to look after David and the baby, but she finds it difficult, in light of her own grief and depression. But one day she drops in on David unexpectedly, and discovers him caring for the little girl — while wearing Laura’s clothes. He confesses that he occasionally wore women’s clothing before he met her (“For fun,” he admits, “for pleasure”), to which Claire does not respond well (“You’re a pervert,” she snaps). But as he walks her through the thinking that brought him to this point, Claire realizes he was creating the feminine presence needed by not only the baby, but himself. “It was like she was there, talking to me,” he says. “She was in me.”
What’s fascinating about The New Girlfriend is how Ozon, perhaps not entirely purposely, addresses the very timely issue of trans and non-binary gender identity, yet he does it within the framework of his usual style and preoccupations — and shortchanges neither. The filmmaker lets so much of what’s fascinating about this story breathe, in the looks and pauses and subtext. It’s a story about acceptance, the (thankful) baseline these days in cinematic trans stories, but as with so much of his work, The New Girlfriend is about identity and desire. The complexities of the identity, in this case, inform the specifics of the desire, but never in a manner that feels exploitative or sensationalistic — he’s merely exploring this dynamic, from all possible angles.
To explain the sudden presence of this new friend to her husband Giles (Raphaël Personnaz), Claire dubs David “Virginia,” and that friendship becomes, in a way, a thrill for her — a turn-on as much as a secret, as she finds herself attracted to Virginia’s masculinity and femininity. Reverberating throughout their outings and intimacies are complicated questions: of David/Virginia’s sexuality, of Claire’s own unresolved (and perhaps sexual) feelings for Laura, and of the triangle created by Giles and the possibilities that opens up.
Ozon has a tendency here to load the plate up a bit, and some of the turns (particularly in the third act) embrace melodrama in a manner more gleeful than any filmmaker this side of Almodóvar. The movie frankly gets a little too messy, feeling as though external forces have been brought into play because the script ultimately comes up against a wall in the Claire/Virginia dynamic. But by that point, such a dead-end doesn’t do much real harm; The New Girlfriend is both an intelligent movie and a kind one, funny and sweet and, when it matters, plenty hot as well.
The New Girlfriend is out Friday in limited release.