Directed by: François Truffaut.
Written by: François Truffaut & Suzanne Schiffman and Jean Aurel.
Starring: Gérard Depardieu (Bernard Coudray), Fanny Ardant (Mathilde Bauchard), Henri Garcin (Philippe Bauchard), Michèle Baumgartner (Arlette Coudray), Roger Van Hool (Roland Duguet), Véronique Silver (Madame Odile Jouve).
Francois Truffaut was a great admirer of Alfred Hitchcock. The book length interview that Truffaut did with Hitchcock is certainly necessary reading for fans of either filmmaker. Watching Truffaut’s 1981 film The Woman Next Door, it’s hard not to think of Hitchcock. True, the film may not quite be a thriller in the way Hitchcock made them, and yet it recalls the tone of some Hitchcock’s best films. While I certainly do not think it’s one of Truffaut’s best efforts, it is a fascinating film nonetheless.
Gerard Depardieu stars as Bernard, who lives a happy life out in the French countryside with his wife, Arlette (Michele Baumgartner) and their young son. Everything seems idyllic until the vacant house next door suddenly finds new tenants. Bernard meets the husband, Phillippe (Henri Garcin) first and is friendly with him. Then he meets the wife – Mathilde (Fanny Ardant), and he turns cold. He was involved with Mathilde a few years before he met his wife, and the relationship was passionate, yet dysfunctional and ended badly. Still, the problems that arise later in the movie may well have been avoided had Bernard simply told Arlette the truth. Which he doesn’t. Things are made worse by the fact that Mathilde doesn’t tell Phillippe the truth either.
Bernard tries to stay away from Mathilde, who just wants to talk at first, but he cannot. They are drawn together, even though both had thought they had moved on and become happy since their relationship ended. They both know it’s wrong, but they cannot help it. An affair begins, that will eventually consume them – first driving him to do things he didn’t think possible, and then her to take things even a step further.
For the most part, when I think of Truffaut’s films, I think of his lightness of touch and the gentle comedy in which he brings to his movies, even when they are more serious in nature. That comedy is missing in The Woman Next Door, because it wouldn’t really be appropriate. There is nothing funny about this affair that consumes these two people, and will ruin many others lives. Yet, Truffaut’s skill and style is still there. His camera forever moving, watching from a distance as these two circle the drain together. The ending is heartbreaking, and yet completely appropriate.
Ultimately, I do not think that The Woman Next Door is quite a great movie. There is greatness in it – from Truffaut’s direction to the performances by Depardieu and Ardant, and his portrait of small town life. And yet, at times, the films drags a little bit. Hitchcock, I feel, would have known better and cut some of the movie down a little bit, to bring it to its violent conclusion faster. Yet, if the worst thing you can say about a film is that Hitchcock would have done it slightly better, I still consider that to be a high compliment.