Bottom line: A story of friendship that flowers between friends, regardless of gender guises
Ed Wood asked the legendary angora sweater-related question: Glen or Glenda? In “The New Girlfriend,” French writer-director Francois Ozon’s latest dreamy, attractively composed diversion in which an angora sweater makes an 11th-hour appearance, the question shifts to: David or Virginia?
Get a load of everything that happens in the film’s first 15 minutes. Laura (Isild Le Besco), the loyal best friend of Claire (Anais Demoustier), dies, leaving behind grieving husband David, played by Romain Duris, and an infant daughter.
In early flashbacks, we see ravishing highlights of Claire and Laura’s life before the tragedy. One has intense red hair, the other, super-blue eyes. They romp together in a country home near a brook. They become teenagers, then find their mates (Raphael Personnaz plays Claire’s husband). Flashback over, we’re back in the present. Not long after Laura’s death, Claire pops over to David’s, unannounced. There she sees her late friend’s widower in drag, bottle-feeding his daughter, looking like a man with a secret no longer hidden.
From there “The New Girlfriend” becomes a story of friendship, love, fluidity and no little contrivance. David, who goes by “Virginia” when cross-dressing first privately, then in public, begs Claire to maintain a cloak of silence on his situation. He tells her it’s simply a way of keeping his late wife’s memory alive and to remind his daughter of the mother she hardly knew. David entreats Claire to go shopping downtown. Then they head off on a weekend retreat together. Claire lies to her work-distracted husband about her whereabouts. Where are Claire and David headed?
Comic bits (lower-back waxing; David forgetting he’s still wearing lipstick in front of his mother-in-law) feel as though they belong to a different film. Ozon, I think, was drawn to the serious matters beneath the surface. A satisfying and heartfelt love, argues the film, can and should be allowed to flower between two good friends, whatever the gender guises, whatever the clothing.
The actors are more than fine. Demoustier is the key, making her character’s shifts in astonishment and perplexity honest and plausible. As for Duris, in his blond wig and wide, toothy grin, he resembles a Gallic Hilary Swank. (It’s certainly a look.) With the culture news value of Caitlyn Jenner, “Transparent” and the forthcoming Eddie Redmayne vehicle “The Danish Girl” very high at the moment, the timing for the U.S. release of “The New Girlfriend” feels right. It’s less than it should’ve been, and a little mild. But Ozon makes it glide with confidence, in or out of heels.