MUCH in the way that a writer of precise, clean, seemingly effortlessly flowing prose can capture one’s attention in an opening paragraph of essential but banal information, Francois Truffaut can draw us immediately into the everyday world of his films, which look familiar but are as foreign to most of us as life among a tribe of aborigines.
The inhabitants of his world are not exotic. No rings in their noses. No lavender-dyed hair. They have no difficulty differentiating reality from fantasy. To all appearances they tend to be commonplace. Yet it is the exhilarating talent of this film maker to be able to define the commonplace in a manner that is not at all commonplace, and thus to find – and appreciate – the mystery within. This is the continuing revelation of each of Mr. Truffaut’s best films, especially of ”Jules and Jim,” ”La Peau Douce,” ”Stolen Kisses” ”The Story of Adele H” and, now, of ”The Woman Next Door,” a love story of almost self-effacing mastery.
The film will be shown at the New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall today and tomorrow and will open Sunday at the Paris. It’s the sort of movie that makes the work of most other commercially oriented directors look withered.
Like ”La Peau Douce,” which found the particularity in what originally seemed to be a very ordinary crime of passion, ”The Woman Next Door” (”La Femme d’a Cote”) discovers something exalting and profoundly disturbing within the story of a rather unpleasant suburban love affair.
Bernard Coudray (Gerard Depardieu), an instructor at a school that gives refersher courses to merchant marine officers, is happily married to Arlette (Michele Baumgartner). They have a small son, live in a comfortable old house outside Grenoble and exist in the kind of harmony that produces few highs but no lows. This harmony is suddenly upset when the house next to the Coudrays’ is rented by Mathilde and Philippe Bouchard (Fanny Ardant and Henri Garcin). Philippe, an airtraffic controller, is a good, solid, loving husband. Mathilde, a quiet, dark-haired beauty, appears to be a model wife. She is also the former mistress of Bernard Coudray.
Seven years before, Mathilde had abruptly broken off their furiously passionate, unhappy affair. Bernard was the sort of lover who alternately resented his love and declared he couldn’t live without Mathilde. Approximately once every two weeks he’d walk out on her, only to return a couple of days later.
When Mathilde and Bernard meet again through this chanc e rental, each could tell his or her spouse why the sit uation might be difficult. Neither does. Bernard pretends com plete indifference, but with such a vengeance that it has the effect of intriguing Mathilde. When they meet by accident at the supermarket , Mathilde, who appears to be the aggressor, forces Bern ard to agree that they can be friends. In the parking lot they shake hands. Can Bernard have a parting kiss? Mathilde says, why not?
Once again they are off on their toboggan, riding toward ecstasy and self-destruction, meeting several afternoons a week in a local hotel, the two families frequently playing tennis on weekends and dining together in the evenings. Bernard and Mathilde are heedless and invigorated until Bernard again finds the force of his love for Mathilde intolerable.
The story is ordinary, but the screenplay by Mr. Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman and Jean Aurel, and Mr. Truffaut’s direction of it, are anything but commonplace. Much of ”The Woman Next Door” is funny, though not in the fashion of conventional comedies about adultery. The humor is so laced with hints of doom that when, in one early sequence, Bernard locks himself out of his car, the motor running, and must send his small son into the car, through the trunk, to unlock the door, one expects the child somehow to put the machine into gear and go crashing to his death.
Bernard and Mathilde are commonplace people transformed by a kind of need that forever separates them from everyone else. They can’t live apart but they certainly can’t live together. They are too much alike, though they are in agreement on things only during the act of love. Talking about their earlier affair, Mathilde says: ”I loved you. You were merely in love.” When they resume their affair, this is as true of Mathilde as of Bernard.
One night Arlette awakens to find that Bernard is not in bed with her and goes downstairs to find him having a snack, eating by the light of the open refrigerator door, as if the turning on of the light in the kitchen would be some kind of admission of guilt. They hear the sounds of cats in the yard. ”They’re fighting,” says Bernard. ”They’re making love,” says Arlette.
It is typical of Mr. Truffaut’s methods that nothing ever happens quite as expected. You might think – but incorrectly, as it turns out – that the film’s (and the affair’s) climax has been reached during a lawn party that Mathilde and Philippe throw for themselves before leaving on vacation. Bernard watches the festivities with increasing fury until he goes into the house, drags Mathilde downstairs and beats her in front of her husband, his wife and the rest of the guests.
That would be the melodramatic end in any ordinary film, but ”The Woman Next Door” is never ordinary or predictable in any of its aspects, including its settings in and around Grenoble. Mr. Truffaut understands that France is bigger than a familiar Paris.
Mr. Depardieu is not only the busiest French film actor alive at the moment, he also must be the most resourceful and compelling. His Bernard is charming and loving on the surface and an emotional bandit beneath. Fanny Ardant, a stage actress new to films, is perfectly cast as Mathilde. She brings to the role no psychological baggage from other appearances, so that she really is as mysterious to us as she is to Bernard.
Even her beauty is mysterious, being slightly coarse as well classically refined. One can never be sure whether she’s going to abandon herself to rapture or tell off Bernard in terms both angry and accurate. It’s a measure of the way the film works that when, at one point, she walks into the temporarily empty house next door, asking Bernard’s little boy to show her his toys, we are afraid that she might strangle the child – which, of course, she doesn’t.
The supporting roles are played with equal brilliance, especially by Mr. Garcin as Mathilde’s husband, a role that might have been thankless but that has its own unsentimental nobility. Miss Baumgartner is lovely as the wife whose only misfortune seems to have been to live in the wrong neighborhood, the comic implications of which are not lost on Mr. Truffaut or the movie. Memorable, too, is Veronique Silver as Madame Jouve, a middle-aged woman of wisdom and beauty who serves as the eyes of the film.
”The Woman Next Door” is the work of one of the most continuously surprising and accomplished directors of his day.
Vincent Canby, NY Times, October 9, 1981