Short Takes: The New Girlfriend

(François Ozon, France, 2014)

Based on a Ruth Rendell story, François Ozon’s delightful, intermittently morbid drama-lite offers his most textured meditation on gender identity since Water Drops on Burning Rocks (00) while also recalling his playful short A Summer Dress (96).

The story traces the growing desire of Claire for David, the husband of her friend Laura, after discovering him dressed in Laura’s clothes. Death and regeneration respectively bookend the film, a ruffler of suburban complacency in the mold of Chabrol and Buñuel. At the start, Laura (Isild Le Besco) is shown apparently being outfitted for a wedding, but the occasion turns out to be her funeral, and the dresser her widower, David (Romain Duris). At the climax, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier, as freckled and expressive as twentysomething Huppert) dresses David as his alter-ego, “Virginia,” to awaken him/her from a coma.

David’s apotheosis as a straight transvestite is uncomplicatedly joyous (and Duris’s smolder ravishing). Instead, Ozon derives tension from the ambiguous source of Claire’s liberating excitation. She doesn’t know whether she desires Virginia or harbors a necrophiliac yearning for Laura.

Claire’s openness to polymorphous possibility is heroic compared with the mystification Virginia provokes in her macho husband and Laura’s stupid parents, or the homophobia of a smirking waiter. Ozon’s film thus scolds those too obtuse to comprehend that others’ gender images do not fit into conventionally prescribed molds.