Proudly and openly gay director François Ozon (Potiche, 8 Women) has always loved tales of sexual fluidity and ambiguity, his characters rarely occupying a fixed, stereotypical place on the spectrum of gender relationships.
His latest film, adapted from a short story by Ruth Rendell, delights in exploring the social and sexual implications of male-to-female cross-dressing – and does so with a lightness of touch that never turns frivolous. There’s no lack of humour, but no one is mocked or caricatured.
Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) is devoted to childhood friend Laura (Isild Le Besco), so when Laura dies soon after childbirth, Claire – herself happily married to Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz) – vows to take care of her friend’s devastated husband, David (Romain Duris), and infant daughter. What she’s not prepared for is the discovery that David’s way of easing his grief involves a highly creative use of his late wife’s wardrobe.
At first shocked and disgusted, Claire soon comes round and before long finds herself hugely enjoying the company of ‘Virginia’, David’s cross-dressed alter ego. And, given that there was more than a hint of sapphic devotion in her adoration of Laura, the question arises: is she now more attracted to David, or to Virginia? Just to complicate matters, she’s keeping the whole thing a secret from Gilles.
With his trademark subversive playfulness and delight in human foibles, Ozon weaves together comedy, suspense and occasional intimations of darker emotional themes, aided by subtly gauged performances from his two principals. Duris explores his feminine side with relish – Virginia, delighted at attracting interested male glances, sashays shamelessly – while Demoustier, handed a quieter role, shows Claire gaining steadily in self-confidence as the charade develops.
The film only drops off a little towards the end with a slightly too comfortable conclusion but, until then, Ozon’s teasing of social conventions remains fluid and diverting.