It’s been said that Ginger Rogers was a better dancer than Fred Astaire, because she had to do everything Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels. That old quote comes to mind when watching Francois Ozon’s frothy sex farce “The New Girlfriend,” now out on DVD from Cohen Media. It may not have the weightiness of Ozon films like “Swimming Pool” or “Under the Sand,” and may be a little behind the times in its trans politics. But what it does, it does with a cheeky grace — and backwards, and in high heels.
At first, we’re not sure how serious a film we’re in for. The opening credits show images of a beautiful woman getting made up — pure white dress put on, makeup applied. Ozon films this in seductive close-ups — until we realize that the woman in question is dead, being prepared for her open-casket funeral.
The woman is Laura (Isild Le Besco), and in a deft series of flashbacks we learn that she was best friends since childhood with Claire (Anais Demoustier). The girls grew up together, got married in a double ceremony, and were inseparable — until Laura succumbed to a fatal disease, leaving behind an infant daughter and grieving husband David (Romain Duris).
Claire had vowed to Laura that she would take care of her family after her death, so she checks on David and his daughter regularly. One afternoon, she sneaks in and finds David wearing Laura’s old clothes and a blond wig. She’s shocked (“You’re a pervert,” she huffs. “You may be right,” he responds), but David says Laura knew all about his transvestite ways and was cool with it. Anyway, he never dressed as a woman during their marriage; now that she’s gone, he has the urge again, telling himself it provides a maternal role for his daughter and a way to feel close to his late wife. (One of the tone-deaf aspects of David’s transvestitism in the film is that Ozon presents it deliberately as a matter of choice, not of identity.)
As David discovers newfound freedom as a woman, the prim Claire is secretly thrilled, and even takes him (as his alter ego Virginia) shopping for clothes. Eventually, it becomes pretty clear that Claire is turned on by the encounters — but is she falling for David, or Virginia?
“The New Girlfriend” doesn’t have much more on its mind than reveling in this sexual complications (can you have a love triangle with only two people?), and Ozon has fun with Claire’s lustful bewilderment at her growing feelings. As for Duris, his performance skirts camp (we never get the sense his Virginia is anything more than skin deep), but he brings a dignity and honesty to the role. At heart, the film’s politics are simpler and tamer than, say, Amazon’s “Transparent,” but it’s a high-heeled step forward nonetheless.