Friday, September 25, 2015

Gender identity, multilayered, Hitchcockian

François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend (2014), which I caught at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York but which is also screening Oct. 23 - 25 at the Detroit Film Theatre, works on several levels. There is the matter of sexual identity. There is the matter of tolerance and self-acceptance. There is the matter of friendship and longing. And there is also the matter of projecting images on false objects or in this case personalities. It’s also all a little Hitchcockian. Ever since childhood Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) have been as close as friends could be. Then, in her 20s, Laura dies suddenly. Her husband David (Romain Duris) is left alone and must bring up their young child. Claire decides to offer David some support. One day she walks in and finds a very femininely-dressed woman with the child. Turns out it is David. He’d always been a cross-dresser, something about which Laura had supported him. But Claire finds it perverted and says so, and doesn’t know if she can keep it a secret. Initially appalled she starts to come around and continues to visit David. She becomes his transvestite enabler, accompanying him out in public, shopping for women’s clothes, etc. They become best “girl friends” if you will. Two things happen. David, whose female name is Virginia (also played by Duris), still has his male instincts (most transvestites are heterosexual) and falls in love with Claire. Claire does as well though in her case Virginia has replaced Laura as her best friend. And Claire is shocked to realize that she’s sexually attracted to David not as a male but as a female substitute for Laura, confirming her apparently latent lesbian desires. Ozon’s multilayered approach to gender and desire is executed brilliantly. But the film inadvertently gives rise to a couple of questions. One is the nature of transvestism and a feminine ideal. The stereotype transvestite, depicted in this movie, seeks an ultra-feminine persona attained through clothing and makeup. Yet a great many women, at least in today’s world, have defeminized themselves from this stereotype, which was much more common even 20 years ago. The contrast is shown in the film. When they disrobe for bed Virginia is wearing a corset and seamed stockings, Claire just unbuttons her skirt revealing panties. Another issue is the nature of transvestism versus being gay. Transvestism still seems a role that is in the closet (figuratively and literally) compared to the fast growing various aspects of gay culture and even transgenderism (a la Caitlyn Jenner). It’s okay to like people of the same sex or even change to the opposite sex, just not keep your sex and dress like the opposite. This film also would have been a little more powerful had it come out 10 or even five years ago. But 2015 has been a watershed for gay rights and sexual identity causes. The New Girlfriend can therefore be interpreted as part of this mix and not breaking much new ground. The film is based on the Ruth Rendell story, which came out in 1985, a year a film like this would have had more impact.

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