Of late, transgender has been a trending topic in media, social media, and, in particular, film and television. Political correctness dictates that proper treatment means transgender actors and actresses should represent for their own, as do the stars of Tangerine (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) and Orange is the New Black (Laverne Cox). But grabbing even more attention are the performances by cisgender actors like Jeffrey Tambor on Transparent and Eddie Redmayne in awards-season contender The Danish Girl. The studio muscle behind The Danish Girl positioned it in the conversation as the film of the year on the topic of transgender, but writer-director François Ozon's The New Girlfriend better deserves that appraisal, despite its use of cisgender actor Romain Duris.
Working from Ruth Rendell's short story, Ozon (Swimming Pool) again applies wicked wit to serious social and emotional issues. When a woman named Laura (Isild Le Besco) dies, the shock waves of grief dislocate her husband David (Duris)—left behind to raise their daughter Lucie—and Laura's best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier). Ozon's opening sequence leans heavily on imagery and montage to establish these relationships and the theme of clothes making—or being perceived to make—the man and woman. Intercutting shots of Laura's corpse being dressed and made up to best represent her life in death with the Sunday-best mourners putting their best foot forward implies a thin line between the dead and the living while pointing from the mortician's attempted outside-in representation of identity to David's inside-out claiming of identity.
Soon thereafter, Claire seeks out David and Lucie to offer assistance (partly out of well-meaning goodwill and partly to mitigate her own helpless grief). When she finds David dressed in Laura's clothes as he nurses Lucie, Claire leaps to shock and dismay, but David explains his reasons to Claire's eventual satisfaction. That's only the first hurdle in the deepening emotionally codependent relationship between David—who now privately identifies as Virginia—and Claire, who comes to encourage Virginia to step out in public, as discreetly as possible. Acceptance and friendship don't entirely rule the day as Claire attempts to fill the void left by Laura; matters get far more complicated as the two consider romantic and sexual possibilities also left open by Laura's exit. Such notions prove challenging to embrace for Claire, who has both a husband (Raphaël Personnaz) and a presumable comfort in her heterosexual orientation (although, did she have latent feelings for Laura?), and for David, who struggles to live out and proud as a woman.
The New Girlfriend makes for a fascinating psychodrama in which the transgender character isn't "psycho" (as in Dressed to Kill and, well, Psycho). There's a touch of the thriller (via Rendell and, yes, reminiscent of Hitchcock) to David's unsettling post-mortem appropriation of Laura, but Ozon holds that aspect in finely tuned balance with humanistic comedy and empathetic drama of locating courage and overcoming prejudice. All the while, a strong thematic undercurrent pits bourgeois social conventions against authentic self-definition and ultimate freedom to live without shame or undue social limitations. As always, Ozon gets strong work from his actors: as well as capturing raw-nerve anxiety, Duris expertly adopts feminine body language that speaks louder than his male frame, and Demoustier well matches him with a performance of emotional nuances that prove effective in both dramatic and comedic expression. Tangerine may take the prize for most authentic transgender-themed narrative film of 2015, and The Danish Girl may take home a handful of prizes, but The New Girlfriend wins respect by digging deepest into the complexities of gender and relationships.
Cohen Media Group brings The New Girlfriend to home video in a satisfying Blu-ray special edition. The film-to-digital transfer ably recreates the theatrical experience, with natural grain and properly calibrated color characterizing the film's look. Excellent detail and contrast also contribute to this faithful high-def presentation, which offers a warmly welcome alternative to the razor-sharp, color-boosted look of so many newly minted films on Blu-ray. Similarly, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix maximizes the source material, which makes limited sonic demands: front-and-center dialogue remains buoyant above the fullness afforded to the score and the humble detail added by the somewhat sparse but well-placed ambience.
Best of set goes to "Romain Duris: Portrait of an 'Actress'" (45:47, HD), which essentially serves as a making-of documentary, complete with B-roll and interviews. We also get a nice suite of "Deleted Scenes" (10:24, HD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:18, HD).
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