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Franois Truffaut completed The Woman Next Door in 1981, which was the best of times and - in retrospect - the worst of times for him. It was the best of times because a year earlier he had directed two of France's greatest stars, Grard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, in The Last Metro, about an actress who hides her Jewish husband from the Nazis during the German occupation of France in the 1940s. The film instantly garnered some of the greatest praise of Truffaut's career: an Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film of 1980 and an astonishing sweep of France's prestigious Csar Awards, with ten victories - for best picture, directing, screenplay, lead performances, music, and other achievements - out of twelve nominations. The Woman Next Door gathered together many of the same creative partners, including Depardieu, cowriter Suzanne Schiffman, composer Georges Delerue, and most of the technical crew, positioning Truffaut for another artistic triumph.
Yet this would prove to be the worst of times as well, because The Woman Next Door turned out to be Truffaut's next-to-last film. He made the crime comedy Confidentially Yours in 1983, and a few days after its premiere he suffered a stroke that revealed a malignant tumor in his brain. He died the following year at age fifty-two.
Back on the bright side, what made 1981 the very best of times was Truffaut's discovery of the latest love of his life, both on and off the screen. Her name was Fanny Ardant, and she had been primarily a stage and television actress before Truffaut saw her in a TV show and fell in love from afar. Taking a break from preparations for The Last Metro, he met with her and found his expectations more than fulfilled. Soon the two were having a secret romance (not secret for long) and planning their first picture together. Around the same time, Truffaut resolved that Depardieu would be a recurring star in his future films, serving as the alter ego of his maturity much as Jean-Pierre Laud had done for his earlier life, especially in the five-part Antoine Doinel cycle based loosely on Truffaut's own experiences. Depardieu was not the first star Truffaut had worked with, and Truffaut regularly had romances with his leading ladies, but now he had assembled the three musketeers of the movies: glamorous Ardant, energetic Depardieu, and the auteur who made them a team.
The next step was finding an ideal project to introduce Ardant and Depardieu as a screen couple. Things took an ironic turn when Truffaut decided to revive a dormant idea that had been inspired in part by his love affair with Deneuve not so long ago, although the movie would go in very different directions. The tale begins when Mathilde (Ardent) and her husband Philippe (Henri Garcin) move into a house across the street from Bernard (Depardieu) and his wife Arlette (Michle Baumgartner), who live contentedly with their little boy in Grenoble, a modest provincial city. In a sure sign that Depardieu has inherited Laud's position as Truffaut's on-screen alter ego, Bernard's job in the movie is navigating scale-model boats somewhat larger than the ones Laud worked with in Bed and Board (1970), the penultimate Doinel picture.
When the two couples get together for the first time, Bernard and Mathilde both realize with a jolt that they're face to face with a former lover they thought they'd never see again. Playing it cool, they do nothing to alert their spouses to their shared history. But they inevitably run into each other in town, and their passion inevitably reignites, leading to regular trysts at a local hotel. Details about the past start surfacing in their conversations, and it becomes clear that neither Bernard nor Mathilde was stable or secure enough to sustain their bygone relationship - and despite initial appearances, neither has become a whole lot more stable or secure since then. Bernard erupts in a jealous rage at a party, sending Mathilde into the hospital with severe depression. These events lead to a climax that would seem wildly melodramatic if Truffaut didn't handle it with extraordinary taste and tact.
Truffaut shot The Woman Next Door on a brisk schedule, and according to biographers Antoine De Baecque and Serge Toubiana, he had at least three reasons for doing so. The most obvious was that Depardieu had another film commitment (a Francis Veber comedy) and was available for a limited time. Beyond this, Truffaut felt that a fast, vigorous shoot would help preserve the urgency and intensity of the material, which had to burn with volatile emotion or risk falling flat. A third reason was related to a certain skepticism about Truffaut's films among French and American critics. In the eyes of some observers, the New Wave rebel of the 1950s and 1960s had become part of the establishment he used to scorn, making well-behaved pictures like Small Change (1976) and The Man Who Loved Women (1977) - and yes, The Last Metro, with all its Csar Awards - that were easy for studios to promote and for mass audiences to enjoy. He hoped that shooting a story saturated with feelings at a quick, supercharged pace would show the world he still knew how to take a chance on a bold idea.
Shooting took six weeks - half the time allotted to The Last Metro - and a rough cut was ready just ten weeks later. In a final tweak, Truffaut took Schiffman's advice and made a secondary character, Madame Jouve, into the narrator of the story; an aging woman with a tragic love affair in her own past, she brings a delicate balance of empathy and detachment to the film's operatic ending. Equally important, her composure and perseverance enable her to transcend the heartbreak of that ending, reminding us that - as Truffaut told me more than once - the most enduring theme in his body of work is the survival of the human spirit.
The Woman Next Door was unanimously hailed by French critics - with Ardant receiving particular praise - and New York Times reviewer Vincent Candy greeted its New York Film Festival debut by calling Truffaut "one of the most continuously surprising and accomplished directors of his day." Roger Ebert was similarly impressed, deeming the film "profoundly Hitchcockian...in that its real subjects are guilt, passion and terrible consequences of a sin that starts out small." He added that Truffaut "does a brilliant job of giving surface details that are almost starkly simple, while beneath the surface there's a labyrinthine tangle of passions." The reviewers were right. The Woman Next Door is the kind of masterpiece that burrows under your skin in the most shivery, seductive way and stays in memory for a long, long time to come.
Director: Franois Truffaut
Producer: Franois Truffaut
Screenplay: Franois Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman, Jean Aurel
Cinematographer: William Lubtchansky
Film Editing: Martine Barraqu
Production Design: Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Grard Depardieu (Bernard Coudray), Fanny Ardant (Mathilde Bauchard), Henri Garcin (Philippe Bauchard), Michle Baumgartner (Arlette Coudray), Roger Van Hool (Roland Duguet), Vronique Silver (Madame Odile Jouve), Olivier Becquaert (Thomas Coudray).
by David Sterritt