This week marks the release of François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend, starring Romain Duris and Anaïs Demoustier. Having wow’d crowds at Toronto International Film Festival (where the film premiered) and the London Film Festival, the film finally arrives in the UK. Following the story of Claire (Demoustier), who working her way through the death of her best friend, grows close to the friend’s husband, David (Duris) and discovers a world with David that she had never thought of before. Part Almodovar, part mysterious but quintessentially Ozon, The New Girlfriend is a fabulous and uplifting French romantic comedy like you’ve never seen before. Recently we had a chance to chat with the films director, François Ozon and lead actor, Romain Duris about what it was like to step into a pair of high heels.
***Spoiler below – do not read if you want to avoid spoilers***
Front Row Reviews: I would love to know where the idea came from to do the adaptation in the first place.
François Ozon: I read the short story twenty years ago. I loved the plot. I tried at the time to make a short. But I didn’t find the money, I didn’t find the actors so I gave up. I had still this story in my mind but I realised, this time, I didn’t want to make a murder story anymore. I don’t know if you’ve read the short story but in the end the character of Claire kills Virginia so it’s not what I wanted to do. I realised I wanted to give the importancy to these characters and have a real love story. And so I wanted this story to have a happy ending so I changed the end and also the start of the film because in the short story it’s not a story of grieving. So It is important for me to evolve the character and situation and to give them the time to identify and to understand the path of the characters.
FRR: How do you take something short and make it a big feature length?
Ozon: When I wanted to make a short it was very close, it was a faithful adaptation but when you want to make a feature, of course you have to change it so that is why I have this new start and I changed a lot of the relationships of the character. In the short story, Claire is very afraid of her feelings and that is why she kills Virginia. It’s more a story about repressed desire and the fear to be a lesbian. I would have loved to talk to Ruth Rendall about that but, you know, she passed away and I’m very sad as she wouldn’t have seen the film. She was supposed to see it now but maybe she wouldn’t have been happy seeing the film because it’s a betrayal but it’s always a betrayal when you do an adaptation.
FRR: Romain, how did you become involved with François on the project?
Romain Duris: I didn’t have a choice, François called me and asked me if I still wanted to play a woman and I said yes because you know for an actor you want to do something so radically different but the same. So the surprise was, for me, to read the script and hope it was a good story but I was happy to share that with François because I knew his work with feminine actresses. So we did some tests with very simple wigs and small make up and we had fun and François made his choice.
Duris: Worry? No because I trust François and we would agree with the vision and the femininity of David you know. I was sure that François wouldn’t ask me to do the drag queen and sometimes in some scenes we were close to being over the top but I knew that the story, that François would shoot the story with a profound feeling and something more serious, so I was happy with that side.
FRR: I’d love to know from both of you – there’s an important moment for me in the film, when David is asked if he’s gay and he says “No, I’ve always fancied women,” and I just wanted you to elaborate on that feeling of accepting difference. Maybe not a question of sexuality but something that isn’t the norm.
Ozon: I did a lot of research on cross dressing, I met a lot of people and there is this stereotype to make a link between homosexuality and cross dressing but then you realise that 80% of the cross dressers are straight. And indeed have a wife and children. It was quite a surprise, I thought they were gay. For this story, it was clear he was straight. Sexuality is complex for everybody. For David and Virginia it is always clear but for Claire, she is totally lost. She doesn’t know what she is feeling, it’s a new situation, and she asks “Am I a Lesbian? Was I in love with my best friend?” And at the end she realises “I am in love with Virginia but not David” but what is Virginia? It’s a man in woman’s clothing so I think there’s something special in that.
FRR: There is a sense of gayness being more acceptable than being a transsexual or cross dresser, do you think that’s something common in French culture?
Ozon: I think it’s everywhere because homosexuality is more widely accepted but transvestism; it disturbs the law and the tradition and the idea of gender that people have but I think it’s changing.
FRR: How much practise, Romain, did you do in terms of your mannerisms in the film when you’re playing David to when you’re playing Virginia. There are really lovely moments where your legs move in different ways. What preparation did you do to get those?
Duris: It is true that I was focused on Virginia, I thought David would be an equivalent to Virginia and David is more difficult to understand and to create, more so than Virginia because as the death of his wife and this desire to be free has a lot contradictions so I spent time focusing on Virginia and I had a coach for the high heels. That was great, a good exercise and that led to Virginia who grew up inside me and I thought about David later.
FRR: How would you describe the relationship? I mean are they two different personalities, are they the same?
Ozon: That’s what Romain said, David is sad and Virginia is a way to find happiness again – to re-find his wife – it’s a story about grieving they have this complexity. It’s a way to recreate Laura and that’s what connects them and they are happy together. They are good for each other.
FRR: Could you say something about the use of music in the film. Specifically Katy Perry was used twice in the film and the French song that the drag queen sings?
FRR: Did you have those songs in mind when you came to the project?
Ozon: I did not have Katy Perry but Nicole Croisille, the lyrics of the song are very interesting and the link between the two actors. Katy Perry is a guilty pleasure like the scene of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, a cliché of shopping, its women shopping and its very heartening song. I don’t know if the lyrics work so well for the scene but it’s for pleasure.
FRR: I just really like that the song is also at the beginning
Ozon: Of course, there are a lot of mirror effects between the ten first minutes and after the situations that arise. There is a cinema again, there is a dancing scene and there is tennis too. All the scenes at the beginning come back with Virginia.
FRR: There is an acceptance in the film, obviously there is a lot of conflict and struggle, but in the end there is acceptance. Would you like it to reach out to other people in similar situations?
Ozon: It is a film full of hope, I wanted to build this story like a fairy-tale I know it’s a dream situation and it’s very difficult for a cross dresser because they are judged by their family and society. I wanted to give him hope but it is a political film in some ways. I wrote the script in France when there was a lot of protests about same sex marriage, so a lot of people were fighting about their rights and for homosexuality and equality. It was shocking. So during the process of writing and trying to explain to people that there are new situations and you don’t have to be afraid, there is no drama. So I hope my film will hope some people to understand better.
FRR: Coming back to the Katy Perry; you’ve got a lot of American culture in the culture, why did you make it so American?
Ozon: Because American is coming everywhere, you know? I didn’t want to make a French movie for the French. I wanted it to be more stylised for the characters to be anywhere and everywhere. In France there is this idea of everyone being very closed off, you don’t see the houses. There is no barriers in America, you can see everything. There are no gates and you can see each other. I think I’m interested in the American culture because of that.
FRR: There is a moment where they are in the cinema, when a random guy puts his hand on her leg…
Ozon: You didn’t recognise me?
FRR: Oh was that you? That was too dark, I couldn’t see you!
Ozon: That’s better because I look like a pervert!
FRR: I’m not going to say anything. But at that moment, Virginia lets it happen until she is pulled away and there is this thing about equality and female rights because in other films it would be all “ugh that’s disgusting”.
Ozon: It’s just the character of the film
FRR: But is it something you’ve been thinking of? She doesn’t react, she lets it happen.
Ozon: For me, I was happy to show that Virginia is happy in the situation because he thinks “Oh, he thinks I am a woman.” It’s not that he wants it to happen but it’s when he thinks “Men see me as a woman.” But of course, I don’t know what it was like for Romain to play this scene.
Ozon: Because I’d already touched you before?
FRR: In what way was it better?
Duris: Because the other one was like “mmmmm”, only pretending whereas François was really passionate and went for it. It was less awkward.
FRR: It sounds like it was a really happy set, and just from your performance which is extraordinary, you give this real sense that not only is David comfortable as Virginia but Romain is comfortable is doing this. How do you feel stepping into those high heels for the first time?
Duris: It was a joy like when you are playing as a child, like a child dressing up and I really wanted to play Virginia with this innocence I guess. I think it was important and François would agree and was asking for that to be light and playful. Because the transformation took a lot of space so you have to put some lightness inside and make it playful. To me it was like natural.
FRR: Was there a moment where you really thought you nailed it? Or particularly proud of.
Ozon: I’m not proud of anything. No, I love the club moment as it is a moment where there is no judgement and they are accepted. It’s the heart of the film. So it was important this scene with the emotions between the actors. They are completely free, surrounded by people who’ll accept them for who they are. It’s like idealistic moment in the film. It’s not like that but I think at a certain time in gay clubs, you had this mixed cities between gay, lesbian, black and Arab people. You had this feeling like it would happen.
FRR: What was it like working with the baby because it screams quite a lot in the film? I was like, is that in the script?
Ozon: We had like six different babies. You know when you work with a baby you have the law behind you. You imagine it’s a nightmare. You have to try different babies and change them. You shoot the scene with the baby crying. Actually it was important for some scenes to have the baby crying. Except that moment when you give her the skirt of your wife, she’s supposed to stop crying so we had to wait a long time.
Duris: We had a fake one!
Ozon: Oui, with a fake one, you know with the film with Clint Eastwood and in his film it is very shocking. But in my film, we added some effects to make it look like it was moving. I don’t know why his looked like it did nothing. Maybe he’s had no budget? You can use special effects but maybe with the budget it was a bit of a stretch. I’m going to call him.
FRR: Romain, you’ve done quite a lot of romantic drama and this is kind of a departure, for you. I know that was something you had in mind and you wanted to work with François.
Duris: It’s not calculated, I don’t do a programme or a strategy, I am just reading scripts and I chose characters and I try to be different each time and I’m scared of doing a programme like “Ok I’ve two dramas maybe I should a comedy.” You play a drama film, you are naturally going to chose something lighter and François called me
Ozon: I read in your interview that you wanted to play a woman so you know…
Duris: It was a joke, Francois
Ozon: Too late!
FRR: Don’t tell him that a year later. Why do you think the theme of transgender is so important?
Ozon: Because there is a question in French society about gender, about sexuality and we have this big debate about gay rights and about gay weddings and you know the French artists are getting into that new situation and we see people who want to escape the social norm and reality. They wanted to create their own identities. It’s something very present in the French society.
FRR: The original text of the film is The New Girlfriend, did you want to change the title at all?
Ozon: I liked the title. In French, it’s ambigious because Une Nouvelle Ami means a new friend or a new lover. I don’t know in English too.
FRR: Yeah I saw it as girls call each other girlfriend but it means lover too.
Ozon: It’s funny because in Japan they asked me about the title and they wanted to call it, which puzzled me and of course I refused as I was shocked, they proposed to me, “He’s A Lovely Parisian.” I said “What the fuck? It doesn’t happen in Paris” and they said “Oh you know, our audience are these women over 40 years old and they dream of Paris” and I said “The film has nothing to do with Paris. You don’t see the Eiffel Tower in the film.”
FRR: So this isn’t the first story you’ve adapted from books, what is it when you are reading something that makes you go “yes, I’ll adapt this”?
Ozon: When it stimulates my imagination, when I want to see these characters on screen. And it’s exciting and to create these scenes you sometimes need a very long time. I read this story twenty years ago but it takes you time. You need your own vision on the subject and it’s very different telling a story to when you film it.