The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie), France 2014, Mandarin Films and Foz, directed and written by François Ozon, after a story by Ruth Rendell, starring Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, and Raphaël Personnaz.
Cinema itself, one could claim, is a place of transfer and transformation: a transfer of emotions, of empathy, and, when the experience is particularly intense, even of identities—feeling for someone transforms into feeling like someone, to see someone sometimes means to be someone. Transfer, in cinema, leads to transformation.
Now if this transformation not only takes place in the auditorium, but happens to the figures on the screen as well, it can be quite unsettling for the spectator. If we no longer know with whom we identify, how can we possibly know who we are? Being unsettled is an especially important aspect of trans-gender transformations, because when we look at a person, the first and most important characteristic we recognize is gender.
This is what French iconic queer director François Ozon’s latest movie is all about. It not only tells the story of a man’s transformation into a woman, it also shows its crucial eff ects on those who see him/her. It is, I would like to claim here, a movie about transfer and transformation as key elements of gender assignment, identity, spectatorship, and cinema itself.
The movie tells the story of Claire and Virginia, who fall in love with each other when, after the death of Laura, Claire’s best friend, Laura’s husband, David, starts dressing as a woman and slowly transforms into Virginia. So, the gender transformation is set in motion by a transition from life to death. Claire discovers David’s new feminine self by accident when she passes by his house shortly after Laura’s funeral. When Claire knocks on the door and nobody responds, she is ready to leave, but then she hears the baby cry and decides to enter on her own. Inside, she sees from the back a blond woman sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby. When the supposed nanny turns her face toward Claire, she recognizes David, wearing Laura’s clothes and a blonde wig (see Figure 1).
At first, Claire reacts with shock and hostility (“You are sick, you are a pervert,” she tells him). Yet soon, although not very close up to then, they quickly become intimate friends. Virginia needs Claire because she is the only one who knows about Virginia, and thus helps Virginia to test and develop this new self. Claire enjoys the complicity and being able to help Virginia with female advice. And while David turns more and more into Virginia, shaving accurately, trying out diff erent wigs, dresses, and female voices, Claire herself becomes more self-confident and outgoing and discovers her joy in playing with gender roles.
David’s transformation into Virginia is closely linked to his/her mobility in space. While he changes into her, she also moves from the house’s private interior to the public exterior. In order to feel like a woman, she needs to be seen as a woman. Claire, therefore, was the one who set David’s gender mobility in motion, by invading his private space and bringing his female identity into the light of day. She is also the one who takes Virginia out for the first time. When the two go to the shopping center, Virginia feels very happy being addressed as a woman in the clothing stores—she has never felt so good before in her whole life, as she later confesses to Claire.
This first half of the movie is told in the tones of a French bourgeois comedy of errors. In David’s hiding from his mother-in-law and the expression of exaggerated outrage on her face after noticing a feminine gesture in him, we recognize the well-known genre patterns and can enjoy it as entertainment. But at the same time, we may start to feel at odds with the fact that the movie does not seem to take its protagonists very seriously.
Why does the first half of The New Girlfriend constantly build up a distance between its protagonists and the audience? Through its comical tone at the beginning, and by putting Claire and David’s parents-in-law forward as “harmless” cisgender identification figures, the film is obviously trying to be more easily accepted by audiences that presumably have severe reservations about a transgender protagonist.
A quick glance at the cinematic representation of men dressing as women shows that this comic, mainly playful mode of storytelling was dominant until the end of the twentieth century.1 In classic American comedies such as Some Like It Hot (dir. Billy Wilder, 1959), Tootsie (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1982), and Mrs. Doubtfire (dir. Chris Columbus, 1993), the audience may laugh about the confusions caused by the male women, because these movies ultimately tell stories about cross-dressing, and not about transgender people. In the end, those characters all return quite well to their former, “real” gender identities. For the audience, there is nothing to worry about. But in movies like Transamerica (dir. Duncan Tucker, 2005), Laurence Anyways (dir. Xavier Dolan, 2012), and the Golden Globe–winning Amazon series Transparent (creator Jill Soloway, 2014–), the protagonists long for (and transition into) a feminine identity, often suff ering from the discriminatory, aggressive, and physically violent reactions of the people around them, which are painful to watch for the audience.
In The New Girlfriend, François Ozon combines these two approaches, and this is probably the movie’s most innovative aesthetic device. He tells not only the story of David transforming into Virginia but also of the development of transgender film history, from a comedy of errors to a drama of deeply hurt characters. And in doing so, he leads the audience in a very gentle way to accepting a queer transgender love story.
So, the movie’s genre transformation and the main character’s gender transformation are mutually dependent. The movie’s genre transformation into a drama takes place precisely mid-film, just as Virginia becomes sure of her feminine identity and Claire begins to see her as a woman, too. This becomes clear in a scene of gender mobility that closely echoes the scene of discovery at the movie’s beginning. It occurs during Claire and Virginia’s weekend trip. On the first evening, Claire comes down the stairs of the country house, looking for Virginia. She sees someone standing in front of the fireplace and, as he/she turns toward her, Claire recognizes David. Once again she shakes in fright—only this time, it is not because David looks like a woman but because Virginia looks like a man again. To Claire’s eyes, David/Virginia has become a woman, even if she still hesitates to admit it.
Not until one of the movie’s final scenes does Claire allow and actively help David to turn into Virginia for good. This final transformation takes place in a hospital and is once again closely linked to a transition between life and death (only this time it is the other way around). Claire revives the unconscious David/Virginia by transforming her looks into those of a woman again (see Figure 2). She is able to do so only because she has changed, too. And we as spectators have been transformed, as well.
The New Girlfriend is a movie not only about gender mobility but also about the mobility of identity at large. As the movie shows, this mobility of identity is closely linked to other forms of mobility such as transfers and transitions between life and death, between private and public space, comedy and drama, between older and more recent gender concepts in the history of cinema, between the spectators and the figures on the screen. Ultimately, it is about the wish and the possibility not to be tied to only a single identity. And where else would this be possible if not in cinema?
Glen and Glenda (1953) by Edward D. Wood Jr. (who also plays the leading role) is a very early exception. Maxime Foerster refers to this movie as the first transgender movie in her excellent overview of transgender representation in cinema. Maxime Foerster, “Culture: Cinema,” in La transyclopédie: tout savoir sur les transidentités, ed. Maud-Yeuse Thomas, Karine Espinera, and Arnaud Alessandrin (Paris: Des ailes sur un tracteur, 2012), 81–96.