Following anti-gay marriage protests in France in 2013, director Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, Frantz) made The New Girlfriend with the desire of opening the minds of audiences. He sets out on this path of audience enlightenment by immediately creating a sense of confusion and challenge in the opening scene — a young woman lies dead in a casket dressed in a wedding gown to the contradictory strains of “Here Comes the Bride”. Ozon is no stranger to audacious filmmaking and is renowned for works that not only push the boundaries of genre but also the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.
Adapted from a short story written by crime author and social justice campaigner Ruth Rendell, The New Girlfriend is, in essence, a tale about grief, identity, social taboos and the ultimate power of acceptance. But it is also a powerful and necessary tool in the fight for LGBTI and, in particular, transgender rights.
Research continues to show that transphobia can be significantly reduced and support for trans equality increased by greater media visibility of trans people — therein lies the critical importance of films like The New Girlfriend.
When Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) unexpectedly finds David/Virginia (Romain Duris) dressed in his dead wife’s clothing, we head off into the film’s exploration of the conservative bourgeois world of prejudice and fear directed at those who dare to break the stifling rules of gender binarism. The awkwardness in tone and the unease of the characters that kick off from this scene linger throughout the film — a clear reflection of societal awkwardness around the topics of gender, identity and sexuality.
Representing conservative society in the blue corner is Claire — her confusion is palpable as what she believes to be “right” is challenged. When her ignorance turns to anger and fear, she tells David/Virginia that being “gay is less ridiculous than tranny”— a sentiment found in studies that have shown real societal attitudes to be notably more negative toward trans people than they are toward gay men and lesbians.
In the 2018 Spartacus Gay Travel Index, an index that ranks the safest and most friendly countries for LGBTI people to visit by measuring civil rights and discrimination in relation to LGBTI matters across 197 countries worldwide, France was placed equally in third place. If “gay is less ridiculous than tranny” is the sentiment in bronze medal-winning France, what horrors are LGBTI people still being exposed to in other countries who are well out of medal contention on this list?
When Virginia and Claire visit a gay bar together, we see what could be — within the walls of the nightclub, difference is embraced and celebrated rather than derided. Gender non-conforming artists are deliberately and perfectly featured here, and deliver a feast of fabulous and relevant music that ignites the couple's adventure into freedom. The strains of the aria “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix" by German performance artist Klaus Nomi is an audible and emotional delight heralding this cardinal sequence. We are treated to a drag performance of “Une Femme Avec Toi” — a pivotal moment in the film — before the dance floor opens up with Amanda Lear’s gay anthem “Follow Me”.
“The scene in the nightclub is a really important scene. It's the scene where suddenly Claire and David are not judged, and they're totally happy,” Ozon explains.
Since this film was made in 2014, support for same-sex marriage has generally increased, but campaigning for this and other LBGTI rights and formal recognition continues to be imperative. In 2016, France passed a law allowing transgender people to legally change their gender status without having to be sterilised as had been the requirement up until then. However, rather than relying on “self-determination” as the measure of change as is the case in some other countries including Denmark, Norway and Ireland, French trans people still have to attend court to get their gender officially changed — a forum usually reserved for criminal offenders. Such are the messages of LGBTI discrimination still being sent from political institutions throughout the world.
Meanwhile, in Australian society, not everyone is totally happy or free from judgement. In a 2017 survey, nearly 80 percent of Australian trans people aged 14-25 reported self-harming behaviour, while nearly half (48 percent) had attempted suicide — six times higher than the general adolescent population.
Campaigning for LGBTI rights, leadership and laws is essential, and ultimately sets a new standard of what is fair and acceptable in society. But laws will do little unless the culture and values of society change with them. Mass media is the indispensable element needing to take up the fight, and carry the stories and images of LGBTI people into the hearts and minds of society to enact the real change.
The New Girlfriend sends the message that it’s time to unlearn the societal and familial limitations that create and perpetuate needless unhappiness and harm.
Watch The New Girlfriend at SBS On Demand: