Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.19: Francois Truffaut's The Woman Next Door

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 82 (A-)

After a masterwork like The Last Metro, it’s not entirely surprising that Francois Truffaut’s next couple of films could be overlooked. A gorgeous meditation on art, love, and their importance during war, Metro works as such a perfect swan song for a born romantic and art geek like Truffaut. It’s also completely unfair to his final two films, particularly 1981’s vastly underrated The Woman Next Door. The film is another cross between melodrama and Hitchcockian thriller, much like The Soft Skin, The Bride Wore Black, and Mississippi Mermaid. That it ranks next to Mississippi Mermaid as one of the better of these efforts is too often overlooked.

Bernard (Gerard Depardieu in his second and final collaboration with Truffaut) is happily married to Arnette (Michele Baumgartner). When a new family moves next door, Bernard thinks nothing of it until he realizes that the wife is Mathilde (Fanny Ardant), a former lover of his with whom he had a tumultuous relationship. The two resolve to be friends, but they soon rekindle their passionate relationship as their marriages suffer and Mathilde lapses into madness.

Truffaut uses a masterful framing device as family friend Odile (Veronique Silver) introduces a tale of tragedy and passionate love, giving the film a sad sense of inevitability. The Woman Next Door shares The Last Metro’s strong sense of stakes and Hitchcockian suspense as Truffaut drags out tension for scenes ranging from Bernard and Mathilde meeting in a motel to Odile receiving a letter from a former lover. Everything has an air of tragic weight to it here, and while Truffaut goes a bit overboard when a character inadvertently describes going to a film with a similar plotline to the events of the film, his masterful portrait of passion and jealousy resonates all the same.

Gerard Depardieu could be described as the De Niro of France, and his terrific work here bolsters that argument. Bernard starts off the film as a charming man settled into a bourgeois life, but he’s a terminally possessive and jealous man whose destructive history with Mathilde is doomed to repeat itself. Ardant is even better as a charming, seemingly happy woman who’s emotionally unstable underneath the satisfied façade. Mathilde has married an older man largely as a way to avoid repeating the heartbreak of her past; fate, it turns out, is a cruel beast.

Love is strange in Truffaut’s world. A pair of happy marriages can be broken up by a long dormant passion, which, once revisited, will be disastrous. The almost omniscient Odile knows this better than the central characters, which is why she avoids her former lover when he tries to contact her; he’s responsible for an attempted suicide that cost her a leg, and any reunion will bring forth disaster. For proof, look no further than where Mathilde and Bernard. Bernard’s passion turns to violent and aggressive obsession, Mathilde’s to anxiety and nervous breakdown. “It’s not my name you say in your sleep”, her husband laments. The film probes the dissatisfaction with married life, that all-encompassing societal expectation, but constraining as it may be, it’s also far more humanizing than the cruel whirlwind of passion. A final encounter between them is played like a set-piece in a taut thriller where anything can happen…but one should expect only the worst. Their love can only be fulfilled in death. Here, Truffaut returns again to the moodier territory of The Green Room. The director still didn’t know of his brain tumor, but clearly he had greater confidence in showing the darker side of his worldview in his later films. Lord knows what fascinating films we might have seen, if not for his untimely death. One can only wonder.

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