To start a film with a dead body is an audacious choice, typically reserved for pulpy murder mysteries or stories about, well, death. The New Girlfriend, the latest effort from François Ozon, purports to be the latter while remaining a story squarely its own through the French filmmaker’s hallmark playful dissection.
Isild Le Besco plays Laura, the deceased in question. Ozon’s camera remembers Laura in a montage of glances and close-up reaction shots, establishing the theme of her unseen presence that will echo through the entire film as her grieving husband David (Romain Duris) and lifelong friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) realize the profundity of her absence.
The eccentricities of latent desire are familiar territory for Ozon, as evidenced by the apocryphal voyeurism of In The House and the Buñuelian casual prostitution of Young & Beautiful, the two films directly preceding The New Girlfriend. For his characters, self-discovery always brings with it an element of sexual intrigue – whether implicit or explicit. Here he ventures into the realm of transsexual issues with an amount of compassion and respect for the subject matter that is crucial to the film’s success.
David is a cross-dresser, a fact that becomes known to Claire when she accidentally finds him dressed in Laura’s clothing. Laura, he reveals, knew about his situation and was accepting and supportive – a loving wife. His newly adopted persona, Virginia, is many things: a maternal figure for his infant daughter, an outlet of personal expression and pleasure, and a stand-in for Laura most of all, fostering the same acceptance in death that she did in life. This parallel is underlined by Ozon’s focus on the physicality and body language of Duris, who invigorates Virginia with a keen sense of mimicry.
Virginia also takes on a significant, almost Vertigo-inspired role for Claire. From flashbacks and through her grieving, it is clear that Claire was close with Laura. Feeling that presence return stirs some surprising emotions and Claire finds herself attracted to Virginia (thus, Laura), a realization that she struggles with. Ozon never punishes her the way that she punishes herself, condemning her not for her repression, but her resulting oscillatory rejections of Virginia.
It is a rampant misconception in society that gender and sex can be defined on a binary rubric. The truth – ever promoted by the trans community and their allies – is fluidity: a spectrum that can accommodate myriad configurations. The film is careful never to prescribe Claire or Virginia with a simple, flat identity: David is not gay while living as Virginia, nor is Claire a lesbian despite her romantic and sexual longing for her friend. By framing their explorations in the concepts of loss and remembrance, complex notions are grounded in something inherently accessible to everyone, regardless of orientation. Ozon playfully shows his hand when Virginia remarks, “A girl only lives once… I feel reborn”. For both characters, Virginia functions as a memory of Laura made flesh, the power of which allows them to come to terms with themselves and each other. A girl may only live once, but love never dies.