The Woman Next Door January 18, 2017
As it stands as a study of the perils that color obsessive love, François Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door (1981) is well aware that victims of it are common connoisseurs of the notion that life is meaningless without their object of affection by their side. To be away from them — distanced by any other relationship beside theirs — is not an option. To die (with them, of course) is more acceptable an offer than any sort of makeshift independence.
But within its first few moments is it not much clear that The Woman Next Door is going to revolve around such matters. Initially does it take on the form of a comedy of manners and then an erotic drama, a Fatal Attraction (1987) without the thrills or the mania. It stars the ever affable Gérard Depardieu as Bernard Coudray, a stereotypical bourgeois husband living happily with his wife (Michèle Baumgartner) and son in the village of Grenoble. Still not yet in the grips of the inevitable boredom that comes along with living the life of a less happy-go-lucky Mike Brady, he’d be content acting as breadwinner for the rest of his mundane life. Or so he thinks.
Things are made interesting, then, when the Coudrays get new neighbors. They are Philippe and Mathilde Bauchard (Henri Garcin and Fanny Ardant), newlyweds renting the charming house for the time being. But it turns out that the people next door (specifically, the woman next door) are not total strangers: eight or nine years ago, Bernard and Mathilde were lovers, and the split wasn’t amicable. Some would say that Mathilde was more in love with Bernard than he was with her, and that imbalance led to repeated bouts of volatility during their run together.
Tensions could be released by admitting the truth — the relationships between both spouses appear to be healthy enough to take such revelations lightly and laugh them off — but Bernard and Mathilde unwisely keep their connection a secret until it blossoms into a redeveloped affair. Before long they’re inconspicuously meeting in the same hotel room nearly every weekday evening, partaking in the pleasures of each other’s company to the cluelessness of their respective spouses.
All culminates in disaster, as most cinematic affairs do. But Truffaut, intriguingly, hides the obsessive nature of one of his leading characters until all hell breaks loose, a move that’d be much more affecting if the film smelled more like slow-burn suspense in the stages of development. But we can’t much tell where it’s going or if it wants to be an immoral romantic drama or a psychological provoker. Ardant and Depardieu’s performance are effective in themselves, their chemistry flaming. But Truffaut explores his themes of obsession far too casually for a feature that begs to nurse at least a couple throbs of melodramatic grandeur. The Woman Next Door should be Hitchcockian, but only its character types match up with the latter’s distinctive stylistics, the rest of the film’s methodical output without much character or direct texture.
The ending’s assuredly bold, and yet it seems to belong to a more operatic, intense film. The Woman Next Door’s understatedness doesn’t complement it. Though like a lot of minor works from great directors, everything about it is immaculate except the impression it leaves on us, and no artistic mastery can hide receptionary indifference. C+