Bored easily, concise to the point of indolence, François Ozon makes films that are not so much about women as about feminine archetypes in movies. He understands how the male gaze often forces women into curious and unnatural poses. Douglas Sirk, another director who fooled critics for years into thinking he skimmed surfaces, also loved costumes and hairdos, but his métier was the melodrama. By contrast Ozon regards genre as a romance of old clothes: an afternoon’s rummage. He doesn’t mind seeming like a dilettante. Under the Sand identified with Charlotte Rampling’s quest to make sense of the disappearance of her husband. Last year’s Young & Beautiful offered no reasons why an intelligent young woman shouldn’t take up prostitution as a job and hobby. In 8 Women (2004) and Potiche (2011), his camera got drunk on the star power of several of France’s most glamorous actresses.
Although devoid of the lunacy that Pedro Almodovar would’ve provided, the can-you-handle-this deliberateness of the gender swap drama The New Girlfriend generates its own kinky momentum. Using Ruth Rendell’s novel, Ozon sets himself up with an original thesis: can a man who feels most comfortable as a woman replace his dead wife in the affections of her best friend? Scene by scene he answers the question. If it’s not his best movie, it’s close.
Ozon has studied his Hitchcock, or, rather, how Brian De Palma studied Hitchcock (always with Ozon there’s distancing). In the first wordless ten minutes, tinkly piano and woozy strings accompany a montage of childhood friends Laura (Isild Le Besco) and Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), the most striking moment of which is a blood sister ceremony on which the camera lingers so that the audience can note their physical similarities. But when Laura is killed in an accident, a devastated Claire becomes catatonic and takes to her bed, ignoring cute dull husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) and his chirped work updates. She’s still the goddaughter of Laura’s infant daughter Lucie, and there’s still a grieving widower to comfort. David (Romain Duris) has other ideas. He’s been cross dressing. Claire is not to worry, though: Laura knew about it, and besides, he “never left the house as a woman.” Soon he does more than leave the house. Back shaved, wig arranged, and lipstick applied, David – or Virginia, as he insists – hits the mall. He fools no one. But he’s a knockout. At first hesitant if not dumbstruck, Claire feels stirrings — of what? She’s attracted to this man. She’s attracted to this woman manqué. She’s attracted to this woman wearing her friend’s dresses and perfumes.
Demoustier wears the expression of a woman remembering a long-suppressed sense of adventure, and she gives the movie its heart. Not because she pulls the Roland Emmerich trick of embodying the hesitations and prejudices of the audience, however; by the end of the movie she is as unrecognizable psychologically as David/Virginia is physically, and it’s credible. Durius, whose gaunt, bony insolence gives him the look of a bourgeois Mick Jagger, has to suggest a man learning to become comfortable, as it were, in another skin. Ozon doesn’t let either character become a drip, though. Even Gilles may not be who we think he is. Inserting a couple of Claire’s fantasies kept me on my toes. It’s been ages since sexual indeterminacy was this droll.
Ever present is Laura, the absent friend, like the titular heroine of the classic 1944 noir a reminder of what could’ve been. Bright and insouciant, The New Girlfriend is perfect for the times. Not even that old perv Otto Preminger suggested that Laura was better off dead.