By Jonathon Sharp

Writer/director François Ozon’s curiosity about sex and the elasticity of relationships is again on display in The New Girlfriend, an unpredictable and surprisingly touching film about love and identity. Like his In the House and Young and Beautiful, Ozon is able to shroud the motivations and desires of his characters to great effect. We’re constantly wondering why the main character here, a young married woman named Claire (played by an impressive Anaïs Demoustier) is irresistibly attracted to the husband of her recently deceased best friend. She’s not into him because he’s handsome or charming; instead, the woman seems to only like the side of him she discovers on accident: that he is a crossdresser, trying to raise a young daughter alone, as both mom and dad.

At first, the characters (and the movie, to some degree) suggest the story is about the effort to take care of this little girl. But as the film progresses, the child’s future takes a back seat to the desires of Claire and her new crossdressing confidant, David (a truly incredible Romain Duris). While Claire is at first outraged to see David dressed in his dead wife’s clothes, she gradually warms up to him because the transformed David – who goes by Virginia – seems to remind her of her deceased and beloved friend. And as David becomes more comfortable as Virginia, venturing out into the world as a svelte, fashionable woman, the two are forced to confront their separate desires. Claire wants to romantically embrace her lost friend, the very ideal of feminine beauty, while David wants to start a new life as Virginia. To complicate things further, Claire has to hide this entire situation from her questioning husband.

This complex web of desire and secrets plays out in a fast-paced, colorful and luxurious French suburbia. At times, it all feels like a fantastical melodrama. This feeling is fortified by the nearly absurd level of wealth all the characters possess. Yet, all that luxury makes this unlikely story easier to swallow. In a sense, The New Girlfriend is a how Ozon might spin a Hollywood-style romantic comedy. For those who’ve never seen his work, this is probably a perfect place to start, especially considering Duris’ unforgettable performance.

The New Girlfriend is playing at the Uptown Theatre.

Jonathon Sharp