The Vanishing Fiancee aka The Green Room
In 1974, Truffaut asked Jean Gruault, his co-writer on Two English Girls (1971) to develop a screenplay based on "The Altar of the Dead," and two other James stories, to be called The Vanishing Fiancée (La Fiancée disparue) but it was not until 1977 that the two had a satisfactory script for The Green Room (La Chambre verte, 1978), as the film was ultimately titled. Julien Davenne is a writer for a provincial periodical in the late 1920s. A World War I veteran, he married after the war, but his wife died soon after their marriage. Since then, he has kept a room in his home as a shrine to her, and to other loved ones who have died. When the room is destroyed by fire, Davenne restores a ruined chapel as the shrine, and enlists the help of Cécilia, a young woman who has befriended him and accepts his obsession. But that obsession prevents Davenne from living fully in the present.
To play Cécilia, the director selected Nathalie Baye, who had made her film debut in Truffaut's Day for Night (1973). With some trepidation, he decided to play Davenne himself, hoping that he could bring some authenticity to the character. "This film is like a handwritten letter," he said in an interview. "If you write by hand, the letter won't be perfect, the handwriting might be a bit shaky, but it will be you, your handwriting." But Nathalie Baye recalled that he worried about whether he could pull off the performance. "He didn't want anyone to stand between him and Julien Davenne, for this undertaking was too intimate...He would say to me, 'It's madness, it will never work!' And he came close to wanting to stop everything." According to Truffaut biographers Antoine de Baeque and Serge Toubiana, "Truffaut played his part in an expressionless, nearly mechanical way." That made it difficult for Baye, used to working opposite actors with whom she could develop characterizations. And Truffaut was so preoccupied with his own performance that he did not give her much as a director either. "She admits that she sometimes felt alone and missed the presence of a 'real' director, more alert to her needs," Truffaut's biographers write.
In spite of the grimness of the subject matter, location shooting in the harbor town of Honfleur in Normandy was a happy experience, with a familial atmosphere. People Truffaut loved played small parts: his production manager's wife Annie Miller plays a dead woman; his current girlfriend, Marie Jaoul de Poncheville plays the second wife of his widowed friend; his editor Martine Barraqué plays a nurse. The director also paid tribute to his own dead idols, filling the chapel set with photos of Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau-and the very-much alive Oskar Werner who starred in Jules and Jim (1962), and is referred to as "a dead German soldier."
French critics were nearly unanimous in their praise for The Green Room. Jean-Louis Bory wrote in Le Nouvel Observateur, "There will be other Truffaut films, but none will be ever more intimate, more personal, that this Green Room, altar of the dead." Truffaut took the film to the New York Film Festival, where the critical reception was equally ecstatic. According to Vincent Canby in the New York Times, The Green Room "Reminds us of the profound darkness that seems to exist just beyond the lighted area of all Truffaut films....The Green Room is not a movie you'll easily forget. It is a most demanding, original work and one must meet it on its own terms, without expectations of casual pleasures."
In spite of rave reviews and strenuous marketing efforts to downplay The Green Room's bleak subject matter, the film was Truffaut's worst financial failure. Although he tried to make light of the skimpy audiences, joking to a friend that it should be renamed "The Empty Room!" he was devastated by the flop and blamed his own performance, announcing that he would not act in another of his own films again for another ten years. Sadly, it is impossible to know if he would have kept that promise. François Truffaut died of a brain tumor only six years later, at the age of 52.
Director: François Truffaut
Producer: François Truffaut
Screenplay: François Truffaut, Jean Gruault, partially based on two stories by Henry James, "The Altar of the Dead" and "The Beast of the Jungle"
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros
Editor: Martine Barraqué
Costume Design: Monique Drury
Art Direction: Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko
Music: Maurice Jaubert
Cast: François Truffaut (Julien Davenne), Nathalie Baye (Cécilia Mandel), Jean Dasté (Bernard Humbert), Jean-Pierre Moulin (Gerard Mazet), Jane Lobre (Madame Rambaud), Patrick Maleon (Georges), Marie Jaoul (Mazet's second wife).
by Margarita Landazuri