Susannah Gruder on The Woman Next Door
When his suburban melodrama The Woman Next Door was released in 1981, François Truffaut was, in many respects, getting back into his stride. He had just witnessed the triumph of his WWII film The Last Metro (1980), a commercial success in France and abroad that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It was a relief for Truffaut, who had reluctantly directed Love on the Run (1979), the conclusion of his Antoine Doinel series, to recoup his losses from the financial failure of his Henry James adaptation The Green Room (1978). Despite its charms, Truffaut was “troubled” by Love on the Run. “It didn’t seem like a real film,” he told an interviewer on the television show Les Rendez-vous du dimanche following the release, saying that he felt the film’s “experimental elements,” which included excerpts of previous films in the Doinel cycle, felt too pronounced. “A film often has an experimental feel in the beginning,” he said. “But by the end you hope it feels like a real object, a real film, so you forget that it’s an experiment.”
Though Truffaut played with the structural elements of filmmaking throughout his career, his enduring emphasis on sincerity and straightforward storytelling tended to put him at odds with other New Wavers, like Jean-Luc Godard, who were often more concerned with dismantling traditional modes of filmmaking for political and philosophical ends. But as the revolutionary spirit of the ’60s and ’70s started to wear off in France and the rest of the world, a trend toward earnestness could be seen taking hold of popular culture. In 1981, saccharine, singable songs like Barbra Streisand’s ballad “Woman in Love” and Richard Sanderson’s charmingly sentimental “Reality” made it to France’s Billboard chart, their dramatic lyrics and melodies suggesting the pain and passion of a love affair. Post–New Wave works like those by Maurice Pialat, Philippe Garrel, and Éric Rohmer were also moving towards narratives and filmic structures that were grounded in the drama of quotidian life, but with a raw, new energy that simmered below the surface. The Woman Next Door, the penultimate film for a New Waver who died too young, is typical of this era of French cinema, its characters motivated by unbridled passions and destructive desires that savagely disrupt their mannered existences.
It’s no surprise that audiences took to the film, with its focus on everyday people struck by the reverberating effects of infidelity, jealousy, and madness—in short l’amour fou in the upper-class banlieue. The film’s casting was helpful to its commercial success as well. French everyman (and major movie star) Gérard Depardieu plays Bernard, a happily married father whose tranquil existence in the Grenoble suburbs is upended when his former flame, Mathilde (Fanny Ardant, making her film debut), moves in with her husband next door. Depardieu had just come off The Last Metro, where Catherine Deneuve’s character compares him to Jean Gabin in La Bête humaine: “Very physical and yet quite gentle.” It’s an apt comparison, and his oscillations between modes grow more extreme as the film plays out.
The Woman Next Door certainly embodies Truffaut’s “experimental feel” in the beginning, breaking the fourth wall right away before firmly reestablishing it for the film’s duration. Truffaut, who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, along with Jean Aurel, opens the film like a novel, introducing us to Depardieu and his family as they pose outside their house “for an unknown photographer,” before settling us into the action. Madame Jouve (Véronique Silver), the owner of the local tennis club, briefly takes on the role of the omniscient narrator, foreshadowing the dreadful events of the film’s ending. “It was still dark when the police left Grenoble, 15 miles from the village,” she says ominously, as an overhead shot follows an ambulance speeding down a country road. We crossfade to a close-up of her sitting in front of a tennis court before she directs the camera to move back, teasing out her character and allowing us to see her forearm cane and leg brace, to explain that no, she’s not a tennis player. “The story began six months ago, though you might say it began 10 years ago,” she narrates.
Truffaut was undoubtedly one of our most literary-minded filmmakers—he adapted 10 of his 25 films from novels or short stories, and even when he penned an original script, his characters feel rich and lived-in in a way that reminds one of Dickens or Tolstoy. The Woman Next Door’s fairy-tale framework might as well begin with, “Once upon a time…”, signifying that perhaps we’re in for a fable. Truffaut, with his own boyish nature and perennial fascination with youth, treats us like children at bedtime, easing us into this story of love and loss before leaving us to process it on our own.
Following this brief introduction, it doesn’t take long for the narrative to kick into gear and the characters to come to life. Bernard, his wife, Arlette (Michèle Baumgartner), and their young son, Thomas (Olivier Bedquaert), quickly meet and befriend Mathilde’s affable husband, Philippe (Henri Garcin). Soon after, however, the calm is punctured by Mathilde’s entrance—and Ardant’s introduction to audiences as a striking screen presence. Truffaut cast Ardant in her first film role at 32, after spotting her in a successful TV series, Les Dames de la côte. He went on to marry and father a child with her, before his death from a brain tumor in 1984 at age 52. As Ardant descends the stairs, she and Bernard lock eyes, though we’re only shown Mathilde’s strong reaction to this involuntary reunion. Neither of them indicates that they know one another, let alone had an all-consuming affair years ago. Dressed in a fitted gray skirt suit, its shoulder pads, along with her curly ’40s bob, emphasizing her angular bone structure and piercing brown eyes, she emits the energy of Katharine Hepburn mixed with Joan Crawford—a bold confidence undercut by deep-rooted damage. And indeed, she is two women, changing just as easily from one to the other as Bernard switches between softness and brutality.
As Mathilde attempts to befriend Bernard, he tries to hold his ground and ignore her, clearly nervous about her effect on him. In one scene, he is so flustered by seeing Mathilde looking out her window that he locks his keys in the car while it’s running, allowing Depardieu to play up his penchant for goofy, bumbling physicality. Mathilde, for her part, is the picture of cool, always looking effortlessly glamorous, and not afraid to approach Bernard to try and discuss the way he treated her in the past. “Tag, you’re it,” she says when she sees him alone at the grocery store. The two behave like children, flirting and ignoring one another in equal measure. “We’re both grown-ups, right?” Mathilde says. When they get to the quiet parking lot, she confronts him. “You really put me through hell,” she says, before detailing how inconsistent he had been with his feelings—going away, coming back, until she had to leave him for her own sanity’s sake. “But we’re over it now,” she says. Less than a minute after they promise to be friends, they share an illicit kiss. The tension is so high that you partake in Mathilde’s swoon before she faints, overwhelmed by passion.
In public, the two go on pretending that nothing is going on between them, all the while playing phone tag until they can arrange a clandestine rendezvous at a hotel in town. Though they try to believe that they’ve matured past the mistakes of their affair eight years ago, they seem to repeat them all over again. In other aspects of their lives, they claim to have grown up as well, but still find themselves drawn to childhood preoccupations. Bernard spends his days at work sailing around in model boats (which Mathilde compares to “children’s toys”) on an artificial lake where he’s an instructor for oil tanker drivers (not unlike Antoine in Bed and Board, demonstrating model boats to potential customers in a mock-up harbor for an “important American hydraulics company”). Meanwhile, Mathilde, who makes illustrations for children’s books as a hobby, is approached by Roland (Roger Van Hool), a friend of Madame Jouve who’s interested in publishing her work. She’s flattered and pursues the opportunity, though her heart is only half in it—she appears to be more interested in throwing herself into a self-destructive affair with Bernard.
As their liaison continues, they devolve further and further into adolescent behaviors, until each becomes the most infantile version of themselves. After Mathilde calls things off, increasingly destabilized by witnessing Bernard happy with someone else, he loses all composure. At a going-away party Mathilde and Philippe throw for their “delayed honeymoon,” Bernard attacks his ex-lover, pulling and dragging at her as he begs her to delay her trip because he has something important to tell her (meaning, he wants to make love in the car). “I’ll shout if I want to!” Bernard bellows, chasing her into the yard where the party guests watch their fight play out. It’s a dramatic moment that puts their affair out in the open, and forces both of their spouses, along with the rest of the town, to face reality.
Both Arlette and Philippe are surprisingly understanding, comforting their melodramatic partners, but clearly still hurt by their indiscretion. (Arlette also reveals that she’s pregnant.) Mathilde, previously alluding to past moments of mental instability, at this point starts to descend into madness. Her self-destructive streak is a toxic match for Bernard’s impulsiveness, as they both push and pull each other toward oblivion. Her drawings become more violent, the bright red of a blood stain on a page where a boy falls and breaks a glass door. “I thought the blood was a bit violent for the young readers,” Roland explains to Mathilde. She disagrees. The blood seems out of place in the film as well, with its subdued early ’80s color palette of beiges and pastels mixed with the soft greens, browns, and grays of the natural landscape. The film was shot by William Lubtchansky, one of the most prominent French cinematographers at the time, working with filmmakers like Godard, Straub-Huillet, Garrel, and Rivette on a string of films, including Noroît and Duelle (1976) and 1981’s Le Pont du Nord. Here, his use of natural light rivals Nestor Almendros’s work with Rohmer, though he’s equally at home shooting in the shadowy alcoves of hotel rooms and parking garages or capturing the way each house looks from across the road at night, its windows lit up.
The parallels to Rear Window and Vertigo are hard to ignore, especially in a film by Hitchcock’s biggest fan, largely responsible for introducing him to European audiences and cementing his reputation. There are frequent shots of Mathilde and Bernard looking longingly out their windows at the other’s house, like L. B. Jefferies letting curiosity get the better of him, and Mathilde’s smart gray suits feel inspired directly by Madeleine Elster’s iconic costume. In another bit of foreshadowing, we learn that Madame Jouve’s injuries were caused by her own suicidal jump from a ninth-floor window, spurred by unrequited love. After Bernard’s manic outburst, Mathilde falls into an uncontrollable fit and is taken to a psychiatric institution, in a state not unlike James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson. Mathilde pulls herself together and is released from the institution, though it soon becomes clear she’s far from well. Drawn out of bed by flashing lights across the hall, Bernard is lured to her house, now nearly empty as Mathilde and Philippe prepare to move out. The two reunite for one final tryst before she quietly pulls a gun out of her purse, shooting him and then herself.
The Woman Next Door made Ardant a star, and she was nominated for a César, as well as for her role in Truffaut’s next film, Confidentially Yours (1983). Truffaut had plans to make five more films and then retire to write novels—he was already scripting multiple projects, including a version of Stendahl’s “Henri and Clementine,” and Jean de La Varende’s “Leather-Nose.” The Little Thief, a companion to The 400 Blows, was finished by Claude Miller in 1989 and starred a young Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the Belle Epoque miniseries from 1995, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, was directed by Gavin Millar and based on Truffaut’s screenplay.
While not often recognized as being among his best, The Woman Next Door feels like one of Truffaut’s most mature projects, one that brings together his fascination with children and the tumultuous lives of adults, as well as his obsession with the idea that to love is to feel pain. It’s one that echoes across his works, from Mississippi Mermaid (“I’m learning what love is, Louis. It’s painful,” Deneuve says) to The Last Metro (“Now I’m in love, Carl, and it hurts. Does love hurt?” Deneuve, again). Yet, he seems to say, it’s a pain we seek out again and again.
There’s a fleeting moment in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) where Jep (Toni Servillo), Rome’s preeminent flâneur, crosses Fanny Ardant (playing herself) in the street. After confessing that he fell in love with her when he saw Truffaut’s film, she tells him that she “really wishes she could have been the Woman Next Door. “Why?” he asks. “To die of love,” she responds.