Gender is a designation used to make everyday interactions simpler. Men and women follow an unwritten rule book outlining how they behave and interact with the people around them. The New Girlfriend, the latest film from French director Francois Ozon, explores this binary and the constructed nature of these arbitrary labels.
Upon the death of her best friend Laura, Claire discovers that Laura’s husband, David, enjoys dressing in women’s clothing. The result is confusing and complicated for both parties as David becomes more comfortable for something he has always been ashamed of with Claire’s help. It is a film where the convention of binaries are shattered. Identity and performance of identity are fluid. In flashbacks of the two girls growing up, Claire appears to be in love with Laura, although the attraction seems to be one-sided as Laura attracts and enjoys the attention of many men. However, the man she marries enjoys play acting as a woman and she accepts this affectation, blurring the supposedly solid line between the hetero- and homosexual.
The New Girlfriend carries an uncomfortable undertone which is at the heart of having to live in a world with such specific criteria for identity, especially for someone who doesn’t fit in the box. The feeling of being uncomfortable in your own skin is passed on to the audience, leaving the lingering question about the value of maintaining the man/woman, male/female binary. It is a film where everyone feels constrained within the language and definitions that are used to describe people and their personalities. There is guilt as they take enjoyment in slipping into others shoes, sometimes literally, struggling to understand how to define themselves when there is no positive language to do so. The David/Virginia/Claire relationship is a fascinating exploration into gender definitions and questions whether having these firm lines is worthwhile.
The problem with these designations is that they are inscribed at birth and immediately inform life experienced. While David wants to be treated as a woman publicly, his experience of the world as a woman is coloured by his biological designation and upbringing as male. In his first trip into the world as Virginia (his female alter ego), a man sitting next to her in a movie theatre puts his hand on her thigh. Instead of making her uncomfortable, Virginia is pleased to have been taken as a woman in a public location. She lacks a lifetime of similar experiences, taking pleasure in an experience that most woman would find uncomfortable. Even Claire, sitting next to Virginia, reads the exchange differently. Born a man, regardless of the outward performance of femininity, David can never truly fulfill the societal designation of woman, because these are designations that begin taking root at birth.
Unfortunately the final third of the film dispenses with this unease, delving into a world of melodramatic and overly contrived circumstances. The ending is too neat and tidy, idyllic to a fault as all the issues around identity and performance are dropped in favour of the fairytale happy ending. While it’s a nice thought that everyone can be happy and accepting of all types of people, it undermines the exploration of gender and performance that the film spends almost two hours developing. It’s almost as if all the struggles before have been wiped away, and, while a nice thought, it lacks the authenticity the rest of the film carries.
The New Girlfriend screened on Sunday, Sept. 7th. It also screens on Saturday, Sept. 13 at 8pm at the Visa Screening Room (Elgin)