The New Girlfriend: Virginia Is for Lovers, by David Bax
François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend begins with a delightfully wicked visual gag worthy of Pedro Almodovar in its obliteration of the line between sex and death. The opening titles play over a series of extreme close-ups of what seems to be a woman dressing. Garter belts are snapped tautly into place over smooth, white skin. Pillowy lips allow an alluring give as lipstick runs across them. A silky dress is smoothed down over the curves beneath. When we are finally given a wide shot – from above – we realize this has not been a sequence detailing a woman readying herself in the boudoir but one of a body being prepared for display in a casket. Such confusion about what we find attractive will prove to be a major theme of The New Girlfriend but in the end, Ozon is unable to strike the balance between the two modes into which most of his films fall – the intensely psychological and the prankish but classicalist melodrama.
Anaïs Demoustier stars as Claire, whose lifelong best friend Laura has died of an unspecified illness (it was she we saw being dressed), leaving behind an infant daughter and a distraught husband, David (Romain Duris). It was Claire’s promise to Laura that she would look after both after Laura had gone. One day, Claire stops by their house unannounced only to surprise David, whom she finds holding the baby while dressed in Laura’s clothes and make-up. Claire is shocked but over time becomes closer to this woman she comes to know as Virginia, their friendship tightening to the point that it may be something more or it may simply be the intimacy shared by dear female friends the world over. How can Claire be sure when Virginia is the person she’s always known as David, her best friend’s husband?
In the early part of the film, Ozon’s camera never seems to stop moving, not in a fidgety or showy way but like a caffeinated ballerina. This hyperactivity is not dissimilar to tricks used by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Baz Lurhmann to yank the audience into a film before swaying them into submission. More than that, though, it’s an expression of Claire’s psyche. The grace of the camera’s movements resemble her proper, upper middle class life while its restlessness is a partner to her lack of confidence, first in a world without Laura, her lifelong companion, and then in the troublingly compelling existence of Virginia.
Ozon shows us changes in Claire that she doesn’t even seem to acknowledge herself. After meeting Virginia, she contemplates her own small breasts in the mirror and soon begins dressing in pants and collared shirts with high necks. She assumes the dominant position during sex with her own husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz). Have Claire’s revelations about the person she thought she knew tapped into her own latent masculinity? Or is her subconscious merely attempting to provide a balance, a course correction to the sharp turn her certainty has taken? It’s here the psychological Ozon, the director of Under the Sand and Swimming Pool, holds his firmest grasp. Claire’s shifting attitudes toward David/Virginia – suspicion, disgust, companionship, attraction, etc. – are not points on line toward some happy breakthrough. They are a messy casting about, attempts to codify the world and the person that she believes she knows.
Unfortunately, Ozon reaches a bit when it comes to Claire’s varied responses. When he has her use nasty words like “pervert” or “tranny,” his gently guiding hand becomes a shove. Those reactions don’t seem to fit, either into Claire’s mouth or into the modern, bourgeois Western culture she inhabits. Ozon is not Todd Haynes making Far from Heaven here. Shock on Claire’s part is understandable; cruelty feels like forced melodrama.
Wasting too much time on trying to hit the full gamut of Claire’s possible emotions is what drags the film down from what it has the potential to be. The moral handwringing is a waste of time on the way to a fairly obvious conclusion. If Ozon had focused more on issues of identity angst in the face of assumptions based on gender being challenged, The New Girlfriend would be remarkable. As it stands, it’s merely interesting.