When it comes to pop culture’s recent obsession with the plight of a cross-dressing man or trans woman (one always leads to the other it seems–at least in cinema), François Ozon’s latest, The New Girlfriend, is no exception. Although the film was released in 2014, a year before Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, it seems to lack the same amount of humanity as the latter–though both favor the use of cisgender males of an effete aesthetic for the trans role. This is probably because The Danish Girl centers around the difficulties of a purely romantic relationship–paired with the difficulty of drawing artistic inspiration from a man when he looks like a woman–rather than the platonic issues presented in The New Girlfriend. Compounded by its more deliberately preposterous overtones, The New Girlfriend offers levity to a subject that’s often taken a bit too seriously (not every trans-related movie needs to be nominated for an Oscar, you know?).
Ozon’s sexual intrigue motif (best represented in the films Swimming Pool and Young & Beautiful) is, of course, the most interesting aspect of the narrative, which tells of Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), the best friend of Laura (Isild Le Besco), the more “bright shining star” of the two when it comes to drawing male attention. In fact, Laura’s looks and vibe even seem to have Claire desperately hoping she’ll notice her as more than mere confidant. As a result, Laura’s unexpected death leads Claire to turn a blind eye to the strangeness of encountering David in a blonde wig and dress one day while holding his daughter, Lucie, as Claire pays him a surprise visit. In fact, Claire soon begins to relish David’s new cross-dressing aesthetic, which he says he has always had a predilection for–one that Laura was aware of. The only problem with Claire taking pure enjoyment out of turning Virginia (David) into her new and unabashed gal pal is the opinion of her husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), who she feels would never understand the pleasure she gets from her substitute friendship, which is fast becoming ever richer and more intense than her original one with Laura.
It is this aspect of The New Girlfriend that lends it a similar whimsy and absurdly dark slant to the work of Pedro Almodóvar, specifically All About My Mother and The Skin I Live In. This is not simply because The New Girlfriend is about trans-ness or sexual confusion, but because of its generally tongue-in-cheek tone. Ozon’s adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s 1985 short story of the same name takes the mystery/thriller aspects of the original and turns them on its ear for the benefit of comedy. And while the final scene is a little too neatly wrapped up, it’s in keeping with the farcical nature of the film up to this point. And in the end, maybe there is just the right amount of humanity given to the caricature-turned-real girl that is Virginia.