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Film Review: The New Girlfriend

on September 22, 2015, 12:00am

Note: This review was originally published back in May 2015 as part of our coverage for the Chicago Critics Film Festival.

Look at how clever that title is, and how we’re immediately asked to test our often limited terminologies for understanding gender, identity, and sexuality. Girlfriend, in the most general sense (or primarily the American), is a term we affiliate with a woman in a relationship with another person. Right? Or, what if it’s a kind of 1940s gal pal usage, like our grandmothers would often do? The New Girlfriend thinks it can be both, and that’s so cool.

François Ozon’s latest film is a gracefully sophisticated, and not to mention timely, drama about boys and girls and love and lust and bodies and identities. On the S.A.G.E. test, The New Girlfriend lists itself with a proud, patient question mark.

We begin mournfully with the passing of Laura. Laura died not six months after the birth of her only child, Lucie. Laura’s eternal best friend, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), is in shambles. Claire promised to look after both Lucie and Laura’s husband David (Romain Duris). Everybody’s having a hard enough time moving on, and accepting the change.

One afternoon, Claire’s finally able to get out of bed to visit David, and to her shock, David’s dressed like a woman. Eerily like Laura, in fact. David’s wearing her clothes, a blonde wig, and is all done up. Claire’s alarmed, but she stays to hear David out. It’s complicated, to say the least. For one thing, David asserts that it helps with handling baby Lucie, who very likely misses Mom. Laura also knew that David liked to cross-dress, and was okay with it, according to David, but David had to promise to never dress in drag outside the house. It doesn’t seem sexual.

David assures Claire that he’s not gay. In fact, he loves women so much, it’s probably why he wants to dress like them; he has since he was a child. Claire, while uncertain, is willing to see this through.

At that point, the film becomes a series of curious discoveries of the limits of identification, and the characters’ own comforts being challenged. Ozon isn’t presenting a kink scenario, or an anomaly for the sake of frivolous frisson. In the face of a heart-breaking event, Ozon asks if it the heart can re-adjust, fix itself, and beat true even if those feelings are hard to understand. The New Girlfriend, while initially shocking, takes its time, running the gamut from sweet-hearted to genuinely worrying, and allows the viewer to adjust each step of the way. We get to share in David and Claire’s explorations, their wonderful experiences, their fears of non-heteronormative intimacy, and yet it’s all plainly human.

As the film progresses, and it’s Ozon and Duris’ greatest accomplishment here, the audience is helped through accepting David as a woman as he tries so hard to accept himself as one. Does anatomy matter? Does David have obligations to his daughter as a father, or would he be happier raising Lucie in dresses and garters? Ozon asks these and so many other questions without a hint of judgment. It’s a thoroughly modern tale, all right. Clever, caring, and curious as well.

Looking at Bruce Jenner’s recent public assertion going viral, here’s another great forum where sex is discussed in a way that says while something may be uncommon, there’s no need to brand people’s proclivities or mental states as abnormal. The New Girlfriend says that David wants to be a woman, or at least dress as a woman, on his own terms. And it’s truly okay, even if it takes a minute to understand.

Trailer:

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