“I must have been born a cauliflower,” says Romain Duris’ David, standing at his dead wife’s grave, dressed in her clothes and wearing her perfume. If that image doesn’t either entice or repel somebody considering viewing François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend, an adaptation of a short story by the British crime thriller novelist Ruth Rendell, I don’t know what else I could possibly say to impress them. Less zany than it sounds, thank God, the above scene follows a story David tells his wife Laura’s best friend Claire – as a child at school, he was told that boys come from cabbages and girls from pretty flowers. As Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) discovers early in the film, David is a ‘cauliflower,’ somewhere in between; a cross-dresser whose desire to wear women’s clothes resurfaces after the death of his wife, elevates his relationship with Claire from acquaintances to close confidantes, and complicates Claire’s grief and love for her best friend. In all, The New Girlfriend measures its approach to precarious subject matter cautiously. While ill-judged levity and moments of narrative clunkiness do occasionally surface, the real pitfalls of dealing with cross-dressing in fiction – perverse sexual fascination, half-baked psychoanalysis, tired gender tropes – are all absent here, kept at bay by Ozon’s eye for style and the cast’s uniformly impressive performances of muted upper-middle-class distress. Bubbling with more themes, subtle stylistic matches, and Chabrolian tension than its 104 minutes can truthfully contain, what The New Girlfriend occasionally lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in depth.
For a relatively complex film, its cast is small – the only significant characters alongside David, Claire and Laura (Isild Le Besco) are Claire’s husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), and supporting appearances from Laura’s grieving parents. The resulting chamber-drama feel is a perfect style to match the tense, repressed mood of Rendell’s very English oeuvre. Where transplanting her style to modern France could easily have rung false, Ozon’s smart stylistic choices – saturated and lush colouring, Merchant Ivory cinematography, and witty shot-for-shot matching – create an improbably convincing backdrop for Rendell’s drama of transgression. Not every choice the film makes works, though. Several chunks of narrative exposition, most notably the early montage depicting Claire and Laura’s history of co-dependent friendship, are handled in a simple flashback-and-voiceover mode, another clear nod to the narrative style of the British ‘heritage film’. Without a meaningful visual motif or implication of the narrator’s unreliability to elevate them, these sequences feel like hopelessly dated infodumps. Other overreaching attempts at satire fall rather flat, too, like a cringeworthy scene where David, as his feminine alter ego Virginie, heads to a mall with Claire and revels in the joy of crass consumerism. While it’s hard to tell what Ozon was really going for here, any suggestion that it may be intended to show David as problematically consumed with the ‘image’ of femininity over its substance is hamstrung immediately by the Mean Girls montage style, and obnoxious Katy Perry soundtrack it employs.
The real meat of The New Girlfriend, though, lies outside these elements of wryness and reference, and it’s all the stronger for it. The sheer amount of dark and intriguing aspects of the story almost threatens to derail its otherwise pretty typical narrative structure. In the first few minutes, we are given a glimpse of the unhealthy undertones of Claire and Laura’s friendship, with the gregarious and beautiful Laura idolised by her more boyish, reserved friend over the years of their relationship. Another suggestion that the film toys with is the potential for gender anxiety on Claire’s part as well as David’s – a few thinly-spread lines of dialogue and camerawork choices accentuate her flat-chestedness and her somewhat androgynous fashion sense. Claire’s eventual support of David’s cross-dressing is clearly powered by her desire to ‘resurrect’ her friend; blurring her motivation for this beyond grief into a statement on repressed bisexuality is one of the most daring and dark themes of The New Girlfriend. David himself is motivated by questionable ends, too – the bridal theme that opens the film is later revealed to have depicted his dressing Laura’s corpse in her wedding outfit, lingerie, hosiery and all; the film’s characters find themselves unexpectedly relating death to sex. When Claire first stumbles upon him feeding the baby Lucie dressed as a woman, it’s specifically Laura’s clothes he is wearing. Romain Duris, whose ability to deal with difficult characters has been made abundantly clear in films such as Jacques Audiard’s The Beat that My Heart Skipped, carries David/Virginie out of the territory of camp with his performance, evoking instead a man troubled not only by grief but also other demons. Capping the tangled web of taboo, David and Claire (or Virginie and Claire) find themselves (sort of) sexually involved, too.
It should be clear that The New Girlfriend has a lot going on. For every moment that seems less than believable, or idea that feels half-explored, there are another three which address hard questions about sexuality, gender, desire, grief, and what it sees as the terror of domesticity. Considering those heavy-hitting concerns, it’s surprising that the film’s most emotional and intimate moments remain its best. David and Claire spend a night at a gay club and watch a drag queen perform a typically histrionic ballad about ‘real’ womanhood. Between Duris’ and Demoustier’s genuine performances and Ozon’s tactful understanding of mood and pacing, this sequence, like many others in The New Girlfriend, is elevated from the trashiness it would have taken on elsewhere, functioning instead as a microcosm of the film as a whole. The New Girlfriend is a love note to the exuberant expressive power of transgression, and a defence of the taboo as a powerful tool for dealing with love and death.