Vital French filmmaker François Ozon dips into yet another cinematic pool involving duality and desire in "The New Girlfriend." Although at times amorphously told and genre non-specific — Dark comedy? Soapy drama? DePalma-esque thriller? — the film holds interest as it often defies expectation and juggles its bold, complex emotions.
When Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) loses lifelong best friend Laura (Isild Le Besco) to an untimely illness, she's unsure how to best navigate her ill-defined relationship with Laura's grieving husband, David (Romain Duris), and their baby daughter, Lucie. But Claire soon finds herself aligned with David in a quite unexpected way when she learns he's a closet cross-dresser.
David explains that this need, though dormant while he was married to Laura, has been rekindled by his beloved wife's death: Wearing her clothes is a way to keep her alive. Or has Laura's passing simply given David carte blanche to be "Virginia"? That it's perhaps a bit of both is one of the many things Claire will discover about David as he becomes her new best friend.
The Claire-David dynamic proves intriguing, daring and layered as they help each other shift and grow while testing the bounds of their emotional and, later, physical attraction.
Meanwhile, Claire hides the details of her friendship with David from her attractive husband, Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), which leads to a few forced complications that don't quite play.
Director Ozon ("Under the Sand," "8 Women"), whose thoughtful, twisty script is "loosely based" on a short story by Ruth Rendell, infuses the picture with a provocative array of themes, imagery and moods. But it's French film heartthrob Duris' fluid, finely measured, physically deft portrayal of the blossoming David that sets the movie apart.
Even in a post-Caitlyn Jenner and post-"Transparent" world, this "Girlfriend" feels new.
"The New Girlfriend"
MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity. In French with subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.