Claire and Laura are BFFs, their lives entwined in a gloriously French montage at the start of “The New Girlfriend,” Francois Ozon’s latest sexy mindbender.
But this is not happily-ever-after: the opening shot is of Laura’s coffin being lowered into the ground. The montage shows their backstory without dialogue and ends with Claire moping through her days, too grief-stricken to concentrate at work or pay much attention to her handsome, bland husband.
Laura left an infant daughter and a husband of her own, a much more interesting man named David. Claire finds out just how interesting when she drops by one day to check on the baby and finds David dressed in his dead wife’s clothes, giving the baby a bottle.
Claire is shocked, David is apologetic, but this is France in 2015. Soon Claire and David, already bonded over Laura’s death, form a deeper relationship around David’s new identity as a woman. Each discovers dormant feelings — Claire becomes more feminine and assertive, David opens up to a happiness he’d never known — and a mutual love of fashion. Claire gives David a new name, Virginia, and they spend the middle third of the movie zipping each other into exquisite dresses and making sure their stockings are smooth and taut.
They can’t live in a bubble forever, and all those garters lead to friction, sexual and emotional. Ozon loves intrigue almost as much as he loves beautiful women (“Swimming Pool” and “8 Women” are prime examples) and based his script on a short story by Ruth Rendell. He’s no Alfred Hitchcock, though, and is much more comfortable playing with the fluid gender roles than in taking his characters anywhere psychologically dark or transgressive.
“The New Girlfriend” has a softness at its core — Laura is already dead, and no one else really gets hurt. David’s blossoming into Virginia is played as a wardrobe issue with some mild slapstick between tennis at the club and a weekend at the country estate.
The mood is kept aloft by Ozon’s light touch and his attractive actors. Romain Duris, France’s busiest leading man, is graceful and vulnerable as David/Virginia, eager for acceptance from Claire and able to walk in the highest of heels without a stumble. It’s a flawless physical performance. Anais Demoustier is his equal as Claire, so eager for a companion after Laura’s death that her shock at seeing David in drag turns to acceptance in about five minutes.
Transgender identity is much more difficult and complicated, as the world is learning this year. It’s fun to watch “The New Girlfriend” the way it’s fun to drink a glass of champagne, and about as memorable.
THE NEW GIRLFRIEND
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Romain Duris, Anais Demoustier, Raphael Personnaz, Isild Le Besco.
Writer and director: Francois Ozon.
Running time: 1:48.
Rated: R, for some strong sexual content and graphic nudity.