SIFF Film Review – The New Girlfriend
The New Girlfriend
Watching The New Girlfriend (Une Nouvelle Amie) directed by François Ozon at a Seattle International Film Festival press screening was a reminder to me of how expectations about a film can skew the actual view experience. When I go see a movie, I only want to know only the most basic plot description. I’m not particularly bothered by spoilers, but I find my enjoyment is enhanced if I don’t know too much, so I don’t do a lot of research. (My husband likes to know even less than I do.) When deciding what to cover at SIFF, I peruse through the brief catalog summaries and mark the things that look appealing. The description of The New Girlfriend stood out to me. “Ever since David’s wife died, a mysterious blonde woman has been seen helping around the house in this Hitchcockian psychosexual drama crafted with suspense and emotional intensity by one of France’s most esteemed modern directors.” The original short story this movie is based on is by Ruth Rendell, who was a writer of thrillers and murder mysteries. So, I went to the theater expecting a Hitchcockian thriller-type film. But that’s not what this movie is at all. It’s a psychosexual melodrama with a touch of fairytale. I spent the whole damn movie waiting for something to happen that never occurred. The pacing and musical cues also felt very thriller-like, so even once I figured out what was going on, I spent the entire time in a state of frustrated anticipation.
Technically speaking, that plot description is true, but it’s misleading as hell. Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) have been best friends since childhood. And – as in many relationships – while they care for each other very much, there is one who loves more and one who is the beloved. They grow up and marry: Claire to Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) and Laura to David (Romain Duris). Right after Laura gives birth to a daughter, she sickens and dies, leaving Claire to fulfill her promise of looking after David and the baby. At first she cannot bear to see the reminders of her dead friend, but finally decides to face up to her responsibilities and pay Laura’s family a surprise visit. Where she discovers David dressed in women’s clothing. Claire is shocked and somewhat repulsed. He assures her that Laura knew and was okay with it. He has always felt happy cross-dressing, although he felt little need to do it when he was married to the hyper-feminine Laura. Now that she is gone, he feels comfort in returning a more female appearance. Claire initially wants to have nothing to do with any of this, but finds herself drawn into David’s journey of self-exploration and manages to deal with her own secret desires along the way.
The only way this is a thriller is if you think cross-dressing, transgender issues, or the possibility of homosexuality is so shocking that the mere revelation of it is taboo. This film is a melodrama. David is actually quite fine with who he is. He knows what makes him feel good, and he wants to follow that path to see where it leads. It’s Claire who creates the drama. She calls him a pervert (and uses the T-word twice), and encourages him to keep his desires secret. She is the one with the issues, and it is her story we follow. She finds herself titillated by the whole thing and starts to encourage David to dress as a woman, even taking his altar ego Virginia out for shopping. The film is somewhat ambiguous about whether Virginia is a cross-dresser or a transgendered person. The film seems to move towards the latter during the course of the story, but nothing is explicitly stated. Which is one of the best parts about the movie, because gender can be complicated and exploring it can take a lifetime. It’s also not an either/or proposition, and this film lets David and Virginia reside in a place where many options are allowed to exist.
But the film isn’t really about David or Virginia. It’s about Claire and her reactions to what is happening in her friend’s life. And that’s a problem because she is a horrible person. She is clueless to her own motivations and feelings and works hard to sabotage any self-esteem Virginia might be building. She pushes and pulls and refuses for a very long time to examine her own feelings; by the time she reaches her resolution, I didn’t feel it was entirely justified. Like Claire, this film sends conflicting messages about what it is, which may actually be the director’s intent. But also like Claire, it didn’t entirely work for me.