Sure, she’s a little tall, a little angular, but Virginia has a distinct style, if not quite enough to ignore that — big spoiler alert! — she came into the world named David.
In The New Girlfriend, the latest film from the always entertaining François Ozon (Swimming Pool, In the House, 8 Women, Under the Sand, etc.), David/Virginia is played by Romain Duris. We meet him in early grief following the death of his wife Laura (Isild Le Besco), days after the birth of their daughter Lucie.
Sharing an even longer part of Laura’s short life than David is Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), her BFF since age 7. The movie unfolds through her point of view. In a masterfully compressed flashback, we see Claire meet her own husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) on the same night that David and Laura first lay eyes on each other. On her friend’s death, she vows to watch over Laura’s husband and child.
That vow leads her into David’s living room one afternoon, where she discovers an unfamiliar woman babysitting Lucie. Only, it’s David in Laura’s clothes. He claims the cross-dressing soothes his daughter. “Every child needs a mother,” he says, and a father as well: “I’m doing both.”
The child-rearing rationale for David’s wardrobe adventures falls away pretty quickly. He admits that Laura knew, before they married, that he liked to flounce around in the occasional frock. David first swears Claire to secrecy, then starts pestering her to take him shopping for new dresses and accessories. (Claire is the one who names his alter-ego Virginia, when Gilles asks her who she’s been spending so much time with, and she claims it’s an old girlfriend from school.)
There’s a gleam of cheerful madness in David’s eyes as he prowls with Claire through department store women’s sections. We wonder, is this just an unexpected outlet for his mourning, or a self-destructive instinct, or true self-actualization? It’s hard not to imagine what Pedro Almodóvar would do with the material or, for that matter, Alfred Hitchcock.
Ozon intentionally summons both filmmakers to mind during the movie. (There’s a dose of Tootsie here, too.) The movie often seems poised on swerving into suspense or hilarity, but maintains footing on its own elegantly cool middle ground.
However, maybe because we spend very little time with David as a (pants-wearing) husband and father prior to Laura’s death, there’s an imbalance in the movie. David’s embrace of wigs, frilly underthings and eye shadow is immediate and nearly absolute. There’s no sense of fumbling transition into a new persona. Virginia is the dominant personality; David quickly recedes.
Another problem? I could never really make psychological sense of David. An avowedly straight man who nevertheless wants to present himself as a stylish woman 24/7, he’s neither transgender nor a typical version of a cross-dresser. Well, that’s probably one point of the movie: Why do we need to cram David/Virginia into tired, familiar categories?
While the movie doesn’t quite connect for me, Ozon is a seductively skilled entertainer. He keeps us off-balance — sometimes with cheap but effective cinematic tricks like fantasies and dream sequences — as his characters question and explore issues of sexuality and identity. Don’t believe everything you see may be the movie’s theme, and it’s also his filmmaking approach.
The New Girlfriend. With Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, Raphaël Personnaz. Directed by François Ozon. In French with subtitles. Rated R. 108 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.