The New Girlfriend is a tease. In Francois Ozon’s genre- and gender-bending new film, Romain Duris plays David – a ‘normal’ suburban husband who transforms into ‘Virginia’ after his wife’s death. David’s embrace of his latent transvestism is told from the perspective of Claire, his dead wife’s grieving best friend. Together, they tell a story in multiple disguises: it’s a comedy of manners, a thriller, an erotic mystery, a country farce.
Duris, an actor defined by his versatility, gives a tremendous performance as Virginia. He spoke to us about his research into representations of the trans community, the possibility of Platonic relationships, and the prejudices of the media.
I’ve wanted to play a woman for a while. Whenever a journalist asks me, “What role would you love to play?”, it’s always a hard question to answer. There are so many possible personalities. So I would say, “I’d like to play a woman”, because a woman would be the character the furthest away and closest to me.
I researched the trans communities by watching documentaries. One’s called Crossdresser. It’s about men in contemporary Paris who talk about their process of transformation. It gave me a chance to see the reality of these men’s lives: how they hide from their family; whether they’re heterosexual or gay; whether a character uses a hotel or a different apartment...I also saw a documentary by Sebastian Lifshitz called Bambi which is about a man who has dressed up as a women since his childhood.
I didn’t ask my wife or female friends for advice on playing Virginia. I worked with a coach so it was a very intimate and personal process. I was inspired by the women I know – by their ways of being – like my older sister. There are many things that came to me from living with my sisters.
A woman would be the character the furthest away and the closest to me.
I didn’t construct a clear backstory for David. I concentrated much more on Virginia. David is much more mysterious. He has a complex personality. I had some inklings but I didn’t want to make them too concrete.
Playing a woman is hard but the really hard thing is playing a man who allows himself to be a woman. But it’s also very cinematic playing people like that, because you can feel their secrets.
I think non-sexual relationships between men and women are possible. But only as soon as there are no taboos and no hidden desires.
François Ozon was great at thinking about the comic aspects of the film. He made sure Virginia was comic in her awkwardness. The story might not seem funny at first, it’s profound, but the humour is an important part of the tone. Emotions are a way of balancing the laughter and the drama.
I always look for different roles. It’s a motor, right? That’s to say, for me, if it’s a role I’ve already played before then I won’t want to do it again. It allows me to move forward.
You notice prejudices when you’re asked questions. For example, some people think transvestites are always gay. Of course they’re not. The problem with people who don’t fit neatly into our stories and narratives is that we don’t see them and we don’t hear them. There are journalists who write things that are intentionally shocking, simplistic and sometimes unjust. As an actor, I wasn't shocked by the story. But when people aren’t familiar with it and they have a different moral outlook…it’s weird…it’s either a politeness or a cowardice but they don’t talk about it.
'The New Girlfriend' is out now in UK cinemas.