According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the most basic two-part definition of the word “identity” is “who someone is” and “the qualities, beliefs, etc. that make a particular person or group different from others.” That notion of identity speaks to both our distinguishing physical appearance and persona on the outside as well as our internal soul, thoughts, preferences, and desires. In 2015, a captivating year where our own country has legalized same sex marriage and the introduction of Caitlyn Jenner set off shockwaves, our society is coming around to learning and understanding that not all identities fit into the usual two check-boxes of “male” and “female.” We are witnessing the emerging battle for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) equality right before our eyes.
American films are slowly beginning to champion the LGBT cause, but greatly trail foreign-made movie offerings. Leave it to the French to help push an envelope that most people in this country won’t put a stamp on let alone lick and put in the mail. Known best for the 2003 slow-boil thriller “Swimming Pool,” the works of French filmmaker Francois Ozon have featured LGBT characters in a positive light since his 1998 feature debut of “Sitcom.” His newest film, “The New Girlfriend,” opens today, September 25, in art house locations across the country, including the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. It showcases and domesticates a unique LGBT story greater than anything you’ll see attempted in the U.S.
Claire (Anais Demoustier) and her childhood best friend Laura (Isild Le Besco) were inseparable. They saw each other through discovery, love, break-ups, eventual marriage, and, for Laura, parenthood. Shortly after giving becoming a mother, Laura’s health quickly deteriorates and she dies. Laura leaves behind an infant daughter Lucie and a depressed husband David (five-time Cesar Award nominee Romain Duris). In losing her closest connection in life, Claire too is rightfully devastated and grows distant from her own devoted husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaz of “Anna Karenina”).
When Claire comes over to Laura’s old house to check on David and the baby, she finds David dressed in a wig, his wife’s clothes, and wearing makeup to soothe his bottle-fed daughter. Go ahead and say “whoa.” Scared at first, David confides to Claire that he has always been enamored with dressing as a woman, even before he was married to Laura. His wife knew all about it and accepted him, as long as David never went public. He hopes Claire, as Laura’s greatest friend, can accept him just as equally.
Initially, Claire finds this side of David repugnant and perverted. The more David confides in her, the more Claire begins to understand his struggle as a man who feels more feminine inside. She helps keep his secret, even from Gilles, and gives him the name “Virginia.” Claire helps David/Virginia grow more comfortable in his/her own skin and a new friendship is formed in each of their hearts to replace Laura. On Claire’s end, the lying and confusion of this all sends her mind constantly spinning. Her thoughts, played out as (and likely matching) our reactionary point of view in the film, are all over the map. If you’re thinking it, Claire is thinking it too. Before it’s all said and done, lines are crossed and boundaries are blurred to find David’s truest identity.
The double-edged sword of “The New Girlfriend” that will act as either an engaging winning formula or a flustering deal-breaker is your acceptance, as a viewer, to the gender and sexuality depths being explored in this film. It has to be said. The R-rated sexual content is indiscreet and extreme by American standards, even if the delivery is more artful in intention. Beyond the visuals, your personal comfort level, bias, and range of openness towards transvestite, transgender, and bisexual people will make or break either your thoughtful appreciation or utter distaste for this type of film. If you’re open to discovery and free of making gross judgments, “The New Girlfriend” will rightly keep you guessing. If you can’t wrap your head around condoning the latent kinks that are possible, this can be jarring, deplorable turnoff of a film. That barometer is purely up to you.
Based on British murder mystery writer Ruth Rendell’s 1985 short story of the same name, the film embraces its overt oddity with a coy mix of melodrama, humor, suspense, drama, romance, friendship, titillation, and, sadly, nonsense. Directing and adapting the book, Francois Ozon merges those ingredients as wildly as Claire’s spinning head of emotions and thoughts. The drama is beautifully shot within affluent and upper class settings in the changing colors of autumn. The sweep of “The New Girlfriend” is backed by a beautifully stunning Phllippe Rombi musical score, but no one will be looking at the leaves falling. Instead, they’ll be looking at the transformations of Romain Duris and the changing reactions of shock from Anais Demoustier. Both give raw and difficult performances that build the peaks and valleys of this movie’s emotional complications and turns.
As open and bold, two good things, as it fashions itself to be, the bizarre cocktail “The New Girlfriend” doesn’t always work, where even the most discerning will still raise eyebrows in disbelief and borderline disturbance. Equal to the search for personal identity being played out thematically, it’s also hard to tell what is being taken seriously and what is there purely to mess with you. This kind of coy might be too coy when a film such as this is trying to juggle identity with grief, sexuality, subversion, and secrecy with volatile consequences. There are definitely necessary steps to bringing the internal and personable side of the LGBT community to film. Ozon’s film oversteps and shoves us into that realm whether we’re ready for it or not.
Lesson #1: Shifting gender roles in friendship and romance— As children and adults, Claire and Laura were as close as two women could get without romantic love. They were each other’s female confidant. They did the “girly” things together that were the societal norm. With Laura gone, Claire has a void to fill and finds, as the title suggests, a new girlfriend in the form of David’s Virginia persona. A woman having a deep platonic friendship with another woman is far more acceptable than one with a widowed single man. There is often a prescribed and accepted place for femininity and vice versa for masculinity as well in friendships and in romances. As a man, David fills the role of a woman for Claire, but David, as Virginia, isn’t interested in men. He is still interested in women. At some point, this friendship can’t be as solid or as simple as one between two women.
Lesson #2: The discovery of gender indentity— David’s most recent bout with embracing his femininity comes in trying to take the place of his wife for the sake of his baby daughter. It started and returned with innocence. Those urges and opportunities push David towards feeling more and more affirmed as a woman more than as a man. Being Virginia is liberating for David and it hurts him that he cannot be his true self among his family, friends, and society. His identity wavers and is not fully formed throughout “The New Girlfriend.” We pine and hope that he settles on what is right for him, free of shame, without damaging his relationships with those closest to him. The path of sexual discovery and awakening in the film only push the catalytic discovery even further.
Lesson #3: The severity of accepting others that are different— Equivalent in narrative weight to David’s growing acceptance of his identity is Claire’s journey towards sorting out her scattered emotions in accepting David/Virginia. She clearly came into this with a negative bias towards transvestites and sexual impurity. As Claire grows fond of David as Virginia and enables their new found friendship, her grounded personal beliefs often take over and try to stop this friendship when things endanger her comfort level. Part of her thinks David is broken in some way and needs help to fix this feminine fascination. In a way, David’s differences can never hope to be accepted unless Claire, the person he has grown closest to, can accept him as the person he is first. Acceptance is respecting someone for all of their flaws and differences, no matter how opposite or severe. It is an breakable bond. Laura and Claire had that and now David has the potential to reach that level for Claire too.