The French do not have to take crash courses in order to deal with the man/woman thing. It is in their blood and in their civilization. Hence, they do not have to compensate for a habitual sexism with extravagant portraits of adventurous Amazons and Superwomen. What I always enjoyed about the French cinema even before the nouvelle vague was its keen sense of fun in the deployment of desire. I enjoyed also the Gallic infatuation with language for its own sake.
With The Woman Next Door, François Truffaut not only continued a grand tradition of sensibility, he broke new ground in his own career. The Woman Next Door is clearly Truffaut’s most Jamesian film in its mastery of oblique narrative and ironic perspective. From the opening shots of Madame Jouve (Veronique Silver) framed incongruously against a background of tennis players, to the closing shots of the devastating denoument viewed from an overhead angle that is compassionate rather than condescending, the narrative never loses its thrust or tension, despite repeated shifts in the point of view. First, there is Madame Jouve, with her somber fatalism augmented by Georges Delerue’s mournful melodiousness. She knows all about the mad love of Bernard Coudray (Gerard Depardieu) and Mathilde Bauchard (Fanny Ardant). They had been lovers seven years before the picture begins, and they parted violently. Each married and each had a son named Thomas. Then one day in Grenoble the Coudrays discover that they have new next-door neighbors named Bauchard.
An aside in the narration tells us that many movies are about a house, and that The Woman Next Door is actually about two houses. This aesthetically self-conscious digression also provides us with a rationale for the improbable contrivance that is required to set the tragedy into motion. It is essential that Bernard and Mathilde meet again after seven years without any premeditation on their part. As their reunion takes one disastrous turn after another, Truffaut weaves an intricate tapestry of background detail. Madame Jouve watches the intrigue unfolding from her privileged vantage point in her tennis club. We learn that Madame Jouve is permanently crippled because of a failed suicide leap years ago when her lover abandoned her for a marriage and a career in New Caledonia. When he returns from New Caledonia to see her, she hides in Paris not to see him. Her own emotional misadventures thus endow her with mystical insights into the tortured destiny of Bernard and Mathilde.
A further link is established between the narrator and the subjects of her narrative when Madame Jouve’s homosexual confidante, Ronald Duguet (Roger Van Hool), decides to publish Mathilde’s illustrated children’s books. Truffaut thus continues to make cinema even with the very incidental information about what the various characters do for a living. Mathilde is seen in the process of drawing pictures, her husband Philippe (Henri Garcin) in the process of going to work as an air controller, and most visually of all, Bernard, as an instructor of sea captains, in the operation of small-scale model oil tankers, an implied continuation of childhood play that is a possible key to his neurotic behavior.
Yet, in the end, The Woman Next Door is not about what people do but about what they feel and think as they plunge into the abyss of their uncontrolled emotions. Unfortunately, the timing of the two lovers is way off. And since they are never really in synch with each other, Madame Jouve proposes as their joint epitaph, “They could never live together, and they could never live apart.” In the old days of factional film criticism, Truffaut might have aroused doubt about his tendency to juggle the humanist and noir-ist tendencies in his artistic personality. Today, however, when so much of the screen is saturated with mindless violence and paranioa, his viewpoint seems more merciful than morbid.
For myself, I have not been so moved by a Truffaut film since Shoot the Piano Player. All the best of Truffaut’s obsession with women and love of narrative cinema is to be found in The Woman Next Door. Not since Bernardette Lafont of Les mistons and Marie Dubois of Shoot the Piano Player had Truffaut come up with two such exciting new female faces as Fanny Ardant (Mathilde) and Veronique Silver (Madame Jouve). In the realm of psychological analysis, few films can match Mathilde’s chilling self-appraisal after her nervous breakdown. It is almost superflous to say that Gerard Depardieu as Bernard Coudray remains one of the axioms of the contemporary French cinema. After The Woman Next Door, Truffaut’s detractors had to abandon the argument that he had remained encased in his autobiographical shell. With Bernard, Mathilde, and Madame Jouve, Truffaut broke out with grace and eloquence.