Interview: François Ozon on his latest film The New Girlfriend

Farhana Gani

Celebrated French film director François Ozon tackles love, grief and sexual identity in The New Girlfriend. We find out his inspirations and delve deeper into the themes of this hilarious film.

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After the death of her best friend, Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) falls into a deep depression until a surprising discovery about her friend's husband David (Romain Duris) gives her a new taste for life. This wildly entertaining comedy-drama is out now on DVD.

 

Reader's Digest: Where did the story come from?  

François Ozon: The film is a loose adaptation of a 15-page short story by Ruth Rendell, similar in tone and spirit to the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In it, a woman discovers that her friend's husband is a closet cross-dresser. He becomes a girl friend to her, but when he declares his love and tries to make love with her, she kills him.

I read the short story some 20 years ago, and wrote a faithful adaptation for a short film, but I couldn't get financing or find the right cast so I abandoned the project. The story stayed with me, indeed haunted me over the years.

It occurred to me that in most of the films I like about cross-dressing, the character does it not out of a personal desire but because of outside constraints. Musicians disguise themselves as women to outfox the mafia in Some Like It Hot; an unemployed actor becomes an actress in order to get a role in Tootsie; another broke actress turns actor in Victor Victoria.

These external circumstances made it possible for the audience to identify with the characters and enjoy the transvestism without guilt or discomfort. Billy Wilder is a great reference for treating the subject. In my story, the character has a deep-seated desire to cross-dress before actually doing it.

 


David-Virginia and Claire
 

RD: The film's morbid starting point is quickly eclipsed as dead wife Laura is replaced by the liberating Virginia.

FO: The death and subsequent grieving, which were not in the short story, allow the audience and Claire to understand David's behaviour prior to accepting it. That's the key to the scene where David uses his dead wife’s blouse, along with her scent, to soothe his baby and feed her.

The beginning of the film—outlining Laura's life and death—is quite dramatic, but little by little, as the new friendship takes shape, lightness, pleasure and joy return, with trips to the mall, a movie, the nightclub. The two characters are good for each other, they console each other.

The film turns back towards life. David-Virginia has never felt happier, and Claire is totally blossoming. At one point, I'd written a statement of intent that was a bit ironic: "My goal is for every man to run out of this film and buy nylons, make-up and dresses—not for his wife, but for himself!"

 

RD: How did you choose Romain Duris?

FO: I tested a number of actors, trying on make-up and wigs to see what they looked like as women, to see if it worked. It was also an opportunity to test their desire to be feminine.

Romain stood out, not because he made the most beautiful woman, but because he absolutely radiated joy at cross-dressing. It came so naturally to him. He embraced the fetishised pleasure of putting on stockings and dresses with no irony or detachment.

 

RD: How did you physically create Romain’s character?

FO: Before the shoot, we tried out lots of different make-up and hairstyles. Right away, he asked costume designer Pascaline Chavanne for a pair of high heels so he could work on his walk in his spare time.

We had to feminise Romain without masking his masculinity. It was a question of striking the right balance each time, according to the scene and the character's state of mind. Sometimes Virginia resumes a male way of walking and his face is stubbly. Other times he had to be very beautiful.

At the beginning Virginia is a work in progress. She's overly sophisticated, playacting her femininity. Like many of the transvestites I met, to begin with she wears her wife's and her mother's clothes. She's trying to find herself, determine her style.

Little by little, she finds the right clothes, the right walk. At the end of the film she's wearing pants and a jacket. She's traded Laura's blond hair for her natural hair colour. She no longer feels the need to over-accessorise her femininity. She has blossomed, quite simply. She's finally found her look!

 

RD: And Anaïs Demoustier?

Anais Demoustier in the New Girlfriend

FO: Claire is a complex character whose point of view we follow. She is above all a witness to David-Virginia's metamorphosis.

She doesn't have much dialogue, her face tells us more about her personal journey: her desires, her fears, her lies to her husband but also to herself. I auditioned many actresses for the role, but Anaïs quickly emerged as the most interesting one to film in the position of observer.

There is always something going on in her face, in her eyes. For the film, I asked her to change her hair colour. To me she really has a redhead's complexion. I wanted to highlight and magnify her freckles.

 

RD: Your film isn't necessarily about transvestism, rather about accepting someone else with their differences.

FO: Yes, the film addresses difference and prejudice, exploring fantasies that the audience may or may not relate to. The main point is to see how each character accepts the peculiarity of the other and finds his or her identity beyond gender.

I really wanted to embrace the melodrama, take the love story as far as I could while maintaining the emotional suspense of the Ruth Rendell story—the secret phone calls, meeting in the garage, etc. However, here the suspense comes not from the outside world but from the interplay between the characters.

When will they realise they're attracted to one another and stop lying about their feelings? Claire and Virginia don't want to see that they're in love because they're caught up in social and familial limitations, but their desire is stronger in the end.

 

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More films by François Ozon