Sunday 24 May 2015

Gender confusion: "The New Girlfriend"

In François Ozon's latest outing The New Girlfriend, everything is fluid. We fade in, to the strains of "The Wedding March", on the sight of a woman being made up, leading us to assume we're watching some blushing bride being prepared for her big day - not, as it turns out, a pallid corpse being readied for burial. The body is that of Laura (Isild Le Besco), the eulogy read by her BFF Claire (Anaïs Demoustier). In a brilliant, wordless flashback sequence, Ozon presents this friendship as an ongoing rivalry between two women who first meet as girls. The meek Claire experiences her first, awkward fumbles with the opposite sex just as the more daring Laura has started to jump on men; she's the bridesmaid at Laura's wedding to David (Romain Duris); when she marries herself - to successful, straight-laced Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), a thoroughly sensible choice - Laura is at her side nursing a baby bump; at the christening, godmother Claire stands at the font, while a visibly sickening Laura is confined to a wheelchair. The race is now over, and Laura has won. What next? Well, spoilers await, so you may prefer to see it, as you should, before reading on.

Ozon adapted The New Girlfriend from a fifteen-page short story that counts as another of Ruth Rendell's inquiries into human behaviour and social norms, although it surely has to go down as one of the least typical. For starters, it's not Laura's death that provides the mystery and requires investigation; the mystery is how life goes on in the wake of her demise. Clearly both Claire and David are affected by her passing: Claire appears newly freed up to question her conventional bourgeois existence, and put herself first for a change; for David, perhaps inevitably, the change is even more dramatic. Forced to assume the role of stay-at-home mum, he's started wearing his late wife's dresses around the house, to console himself and the baby; Claire initially reacts to this revelation, as many viewers will, with shock, but soon finds the clothes confer some essential Lauraness upon David, which sends her into further disarray. History - or, rather, herstory - starts repeating itself.

In truth, everything about the film proves more complex than it first appears. To take the most obvious element, it's organised around what would surely, in other hands, have been no more than a sight gag: the six-foot, four-inch Duris, clad in lippy, heels and the hautiest of haute couture. (Ever since his 1996 short A Summer Dress, Ozon has always been unusually attentive to the interplay between costume and character: Laura bequeathes to her spouse the wardrobe of a 1950s matinee idol.) Certainly, there are comic asides here, in the form of what could be a beginners' guide to transvestism: as Claire gives David tips on applying mascara, and reminds him to shave to avoid five o'clock shadow, it's just possible Ozon intends to school his straight male viewers on how femininity is performance, and all that jazz. "You gotta suffer to be beautiful," winces David in the course of having his back hair waxed.

Nevertheless Ozon, an erstwhile enfant terrible who's grown only more sensitive with age, grants the character a psychological depth. David defines himself as a straight crossdresser who continues to desire women - in trans terms, more David Walliams than Danny La Rue - and one mortuary scene sets us to wondering whether his crossdressing isn't in some way pathological: a retreat under the skin of his dead sweetheart. Certain elements Claire can't help but find attractive: she inherits a gal pal with one change of clothes to haul in firewood, and another to hit the gay bar - presented here as just about the best party a guy, gay, straight or anything in between, might attend. Yet Ozon notes - sympathetically - that this is a lot of baggage for one individual to be carrying around: life gets doubly complicated when David and Claire start trysting at the Hotel Virginia, its very title redolent of a desire to start anew. 

Given the extreme sensitivity of these characters, the final round of lies do come to feel as though they could prove hurtful, if not deadly. Still, the film remains a quietly optimistic and progressive proposition, confident in the ability of its own flawed but decent characters to work through their issues and move towards a happier future for all concerned; it also helps that its writer-director is so acutely alert to the meaning and nuances of his own story that the camera can find elegant, consoling ironies and symmetries wherever it looks. As a result, The New Girlfriend may be the closest the movies have come in recent times to an entirely persuasive merging of the sexes: right through to a climactic sex scene of which many things can and will be made, you sense male and female viewers will take from it polymorphous, and surely numerous, pleasures. Whatever the underwear they're wearing.

The New Girlfriend is now playing in selected cinemas.

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