Nothing is what it seems in cheeky gay French filmmaker François Ozon’s new comedy-drama, “The New Girlfriend.” Based on a Ruth Rendell novel, the film opens with lipstick, eyeliner, and blush being applied to a woman’s face. Although a wedding march is being played, the “bride” is actually the corpse of Laura (Isild Le Besco). Laura’s best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) is delivering the eulogy at the funeral and has promised to watch over Laura’s infant daughter, Lucie, and her husband, David (Romain Duris).
Already grief-stricken, Claire’s emotions take a further summersault when she arrives at Laura’s house one day to an unexpected discovery: David is dressed as a woman. He is as startled as she is, but relieved he can confide his secret to someone. He quickly explains that Laura knew he cross-dressed for fun and never in public. He asks Claire to keep it between them and not tell her husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz). Initially taken aback, Claire eventually comes to enjoy the company of “Virginia,” especially after the two go shopping. In time, Claire’s friendship with Virginia becomes as intense as her bond with Laura had been.
The characters in “The New Girlfriend” find themselves lying to one another, and their deceptions raise suspicions. The film’s main delight comes in seeing how the relationships among Claire, David/ Virginia, and Gilles form an elegantly twisted web.
François Ozon explores the gender twists and turns of a trio of friends and lovers
The difficulty for David in keeping his secret provides the film’s dramatic tension, but Ozon serves up plenty of amusement, as well. At a dinner one night, Gilles mistakes David’s admiration of a woman’s dress for his interest in the woman. When David, dressed as Virginia, is at the movies with Claire, he receives some not wholly unwanted physical attention from a handsy man sitting next to him (Ozon in a fabulous cameo). Still, even while David insists men have never turned him on — he is resolutely straight — the film rolls out a series of queer love triangles, as when Claire tries to persuade Gilles that David is gay in order to cover for his cross-dressing. A variety of same-sex coupling permutations –– real and imagined –– make for delicious twists in “The New Girlfriend.”
The film is also an affecting drama about grief, love, and identity –– especially the co-dependency between Claire and Virginia that helps the bereft friends cope with their shared loss. When they spend a weekend at Laura’s country home, sad memories are triggered for Claire and it is David/ Virginia who becomes the caregiver.
David wrestles with doubts about his identity, but his transvestism is handled with nuance and respect. A scene of Virginia and Claire each dressing to go out to dinner shows them working to move beyond the pain of Laura’s loss. Later, a drag performance at a gay nightclub is particularly liberating for the two girlfriends. Duris is remarkable as David and Virginia, and not just because he looks fetching in a wig and a dress. His performance is tender and touching in always focusing on his characters’ humanity. There may be comic moments –– as when David, dressed in black lacy bra and panties, gets his lower back hair waxed –– but this is the rare comedy where a man in a dress is played for sensitivity, not strictly laughs.
Demoustier is also impressive in her role, making Claire’s emotional transformation — through anger, fear, denial, acceptance, concern, and guilt — credible. With her red hair and freckles, the actress is stunning in a red dress, but can also play masculine at times in less flattering suits. Demoustier is a worthy co-conspirator with Duris.
“The New Girlfriends” suggests just how fragile the relationships among the lead characters can be, but also reaches a soap operatic pitch — with betrayals and other surprises best not revealed. Ozon makes sure to have the last laugh, and that will leave viewers all smiles.
THE NEW GIRLFRIEND | Directed by François Ozon | Cohen Media Group | Opens Sep. 18 | Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at E. 62nd St.; lincolnplazacinema.com | Landmark Sunshine Cinema,143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second St.; landmarktheatres.com