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Interview with François Ozon

Where did you get the idea for the new girlfriend?

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 crossdresser. He becomes a girlfriend to her, but when he declares his love and tries to make love with her, she kills him. I read the short story at the time of summer dress, some twenty 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.
But the story stayed with me, indeed haunted me, over the years. It occurred to me that most of the films I liked about crossdressing were the ones where the character crossdresses 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. Except that in my story, the character has a deep-seated desire to crossdress before actually doing it.

Is that where the idea of his grieving comes in, to help the audience sympathize and identify with David-Virginia?

Yes, the death and subsequent grieving, which were not in the short story, allow the audience and Claire to understand David’s behavior prior to accepting it.That’s the key to the flashback scene where David uses his dead wife’s blouse, along with her scent, to soothe his baby and feed her.I got that idea from a conversation with Chantal Poupaud, who directed crossdresser, a documentary about transgender people, interesting in its exploration of the day-to-day rituals of transformation: plucking hair, applying make-up, using a cache for beards, etc. Chantal is very familiar with the milieu, so I asked her to tell me about transvestites she knew. She mentioned one whose wife had been very ill.The woman knew she was going to die, so she decided to disappear from her husband’s life. To bring her back, he felt a desire to wear her clothes, and began crossdressing regularly.I was captivated by his story,and found it very moving. I finally held the key to adapt and write my story.

This morbid starting point is quickly eclipsed. Dead Laura is gradually replaced by the liberating force embodied by Virginia.

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 toward 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!”The producers feared that might chase the money away. But my goal really was for men to discover and share in the pleasures of feminine artifices, to bring them into the world of transvestism gently, with humor and tenderness. The idea being that we would never make fun of the characters, we’d go on their journey with them, always empathizing.

Right. We never laugh at David-Virginia, we laugh because the pleasure he gets from crossdressing is communicative, particularly in the shopping scene.

The humor comes from the pleasure the character is experiencing. We’re on his level, and his level is innocent. David’s desire is quite straightforward. By the middle of the film, he has found and accepted his identity: he wants to be Virginia. He’s the one who asks Claire to tell Gilles the truth, and to stop lying to herself. Claire is more shaken up by the situation. She’s full of doubts and questions. She takes one step forward, one step back. Ironically, she’s the more neurotic, tortured character. She’s initially shocked and calls David sick,
a pervert. Then she embarks on a true voyage of discovery, ultimately accepting David’s desire completely, along with her own desire for Virginia.

At the beginning of the film you retrace twenty years of friendship in a series of stunning visual ellipses.

That was important in order to establish identification with the characters. I had written some voiceover narration in the script, but on the shoot I tried to tell as much of that backstory as I could in a visual manner, and when we got to the editing room the narration was no longer necessary. Focusing on the key stages of life - childhood, friendship, marriage, the birth of a child, sickness, death - we had to avoid getting corny. I had to find the right distance to create emotion.

It’s hard to determine the geographic location of the new girlfriend.

Some of my films are anchored in a very precise, documented reality.Others - eight women,in the house,the new girlfriend - create their own world. My idea here was to recreate the universal, timeless dimension of the fairytale, a genre referenced in the beginning of the film with Laura lying in her coffin, and at the end whenVirginia awakens like Sleeping Beauty.

How did you come to choose Romain Duris?

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 crossdressing. It came so naturally to him. He embraced the fetishized pleasure of putting on stockings and dresses with no irony or detachment. I’d already spotted this in his graceful, playful interpretation of the song from Jacques Demy’s lola in Christophe Honoré’s film seventeen times cécile cassard. His desire to play the role of David-Virginia was so strong that I couldn’t not pick Romain.

How did you physically create his character?

Before the shoot, we tried out lots of different make-up and hairstyles.And I asked him to lose some weight,as I do with all of my actresses! It was important that he be comfortable with his figure. 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 feminize 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, on the contrary, he had to be very beautiful.At the beginning,Virginia is still 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 color. She no longer feels the need to over-accessorize her femininity. She has blossomed, quite simply. She’s finally found her look!

Whereas Claire has become more feminine.

Claire, whose clothes are initially quite ordinary, rediscovers the pleasures of dressing up through this man who crossdresses, and he also helps her reconnect in a sense with her late friend Laura, who is shown as a more feminine, more luminous woman. By the end of the film, Claire has accepted her femininity. She’s wearing a dress, and she’s pregnant. As a matter of fact, at one point the film’s title was i am woman, but I changed it because I was afraid the audience would associate it too much with David.The character who becomes a woman in my film is first and foremost Claire - and she’s the one who sings about it.

As in many of your films, the characters here mirror each other. Claire’s desire blossoms as she observes David-Virginia’s desire.

Our desire is often a response to someone else’s, we feed on it to discover who we are. In my film see the sea, the mirror relationship ends badly: one of the two women lets herself be killed by the other, who has usurped her identity. Here, the characters’ desires feed off of one another, because of Laura’s death. Laura’s absence creates a void in which Claire and Virginia will find each other.

How did you come to choose Anaïs Demoustier?

Claire is a complex character whose point of view we follow. She is above all in reaction mode, 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 Gilles 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. During the screen tests with Romain, she clearly stood out.
For the film, I asked her to change her hair color. To me she really has a redhead’s complexion. I wanted to highlight and magnify her freckles.
Director of photography Pascal Marti and I also worked a lot on the autumn colors. Red hair fit in nicely with our color scheme.

And Raphaël Personnaz?

I initially met him for the role of Virginia. In theory, physically, it’s easier to imagine him as a woman than Romain, but it didn’t really work.When I called him back to tell him I wasn’t casting him in the role ofVirginia but that I’d like to offer him the role of Gilles, he immediately exclaimed, “Great! I prefer Gilles, I didn’t feel comfortable in the other role.”

And Isild Le Besco?

Isild is so blond and fair she veritably shines.And as with the character of Claire, I needed an actress with youthful features who could credibly go from sixteen to thirty. And someone with a luminous face, sufficiently singular to haunt the entire film.

The nightclub scene has a documentary feel to it.

It was important to see through Claire’s eyes as she discovers this environment for the first time. I was inspired by the atmosphere of nightclubs in the early 80s. Back then people of different social backgrounds and ages mixed more readily in the gay community. It was before AIDS, everything seemed possible, which is no longer really the case.The casting for this
scene was critical. I wanted to show the faces, the beauty of these people. It’s the heart of the film, a moment of well-being and communion, in which the “abnormal” couple formed by Virginia and Claire is completely accepted, without judgment. When I wrote this suspended moment I thought of two scenes I love from melodramas: the gardener’s friends’ party in Douglas Sirk’s all that heaven allows, where love suddenly seems possible between the two protagonists; and the visit to the grandmother on the Riviera in an affair to remember by Leo McCarey.

And the song Une Femme Avec Toi (A Woman With You) by Nicole Croisille?

I wanted a very straightforward, simple song. The lyrics were perfect, with a slight shift in meaning from my story. The transvestites I auditioned for the scene were surprised by my choice. The song is rarely used by female impersonators; they prefer to play more with irony.

As in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, your film is about accepting someone else with their differences.

Yes, transvestism is not the subject of the film but a way to address difference and prejudice. These themes are more internalized here than with Sirk, because times and society have changed: David’s in-laws, upper middle class Catholics though they are, are actually quite tolerant, as long as everything is hidden from view! The film explores fantasies that the audience may or may not relate to. Either way, the main point is to see how each character accepts the peculiarity of the other and finds his or her identity beyond gender, beyond masculine or feminine.At the end of the original script, Claire ironically referenced Simone de Beauvoir’s famous line,“One is not born a woman,but becomes one.”
In addition, 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 realize they’re attracted to one another and stop lying about their feelings? Claire andVirginia 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.

The first time Claire and David make love, Claire rejects David: “You’re a man!”

This very literal exclamation raises a smile. Claire is lost. She knows deep down she’s not sleeping with a woman, but she’d almost forgotten, and the penis brings her back to reality, a bit like in the short story. Except that the character in Ruth Rendell’s story commits murder when she feels the man’s hairy body, she is so repulsed by it.
Here, Claire “kills” Virginia by rejecting her, but the act is symbolic and accidental. And this rejection is just a step in Claire’s journey. Later, she will bring Virginia “back to life” by accepting her as she is, and realizing that she herself has become a woman with her. In a certain sense Claire resuscitatesVirginia, which she couldn’t do with Laura.