The Woman Next Door (La femme d'à côté) Review


Grenoble. Bernard ( Gérard Depardieu), his wife Arlette (Michèle Baumgartner) and their young son move into a house. Soon, they meet their neighbours, Philippe (Henri Garcin) and his wife Mathilde (Fanny Ardant) Bernard's surprise as he and Mathilde had had a relationship several years before. Not revealing their earlier connection, they feel drawn towards each other again...

The Last Metro had been a large-scale production with a period setting, and Truffaut's instinct was to move on to something smaller in scale, with a contemporary setting and a smaller cast. The Last Metro had also been a considerable commercial success in France, the biggest of Truffaut's career and in fact the first major box office hit from any director associated with the New Wave. It was nominated for twelve César Awards, winning ten. Accompanying Truffaut to the ceremony was Fanny Ardant. Truffaut introduced her to Gérard Depardieu, the male lead in Last Metro, and they became the two lead actors in Truffaut's next film, The Woman Next Door (La femme d'à côté), shot in a couple of months in 1981.

Ardant had made her big-screen debut five years earlier and in between had appeared in quite a well-known film of the time, Alain Jessua's The Dogs (Les chiens) which had starred Depardieu. Truffaut had seen her in a 1979 television miniseries, Les dames de la côte. They had met and she, seventeen years his junior, had become his partner and remained so until his death, having a daughter by him in 1983. However, if The Woman Next Door had not been the first time cinemagoers had seen her, she was still largely unknown in 1981. The role made her name, earning her the first of five César Best Actress nominations to date. (The film received two nominations in all, the other for Véronique Silver as Best Supporting Actress.)

In summary The Woman Next Door sounds like an adulterous romance, but it moves into darker territory, hinted at by the opening shot, the full significance of which we don't learn until the very end. It's as if Truffaut is taking inspiration from his new-wave compatriot Claude Chabrol and also from Hitchcock, but the result falls short. There's nothing wrong with the acting of the lead and secondary roles: Ardant and Depardieu are fine, and Henri Garcin and Michèle Baumgartner make rounded, sympathetic figures of the wronged spouses. Véronique Silver steals every scene she's in as Madame Jouve, very much the organising type in this town and confidante to both Bernard and Mathilde. She also serves as de facto narrator, addressing the camera at the beginning and end, in scenes shot after the end of principal photography, the idea of Truffaut's long-standing assistant and co-screenwriter Suzanne Schiffman. Nestor Almendros was not available, so the DP was William Lubtchansky, who had worked extensively with Godard, Rivette and Straub/Huillet, and his work, very much in the natural-light style of Almendros is exemplary. Truffaut's camera is highly mobile, often shooting scenes in single takes, and there's a virtuoso deep-focus sequence shot when an argument breaks out at a party.

However, the storyline isn't entirely convincing. The fact that two old flames find themselves, with their respective spouses, moving in next door to each other is something of a stretch, but that's the given the film depends on. I don't believe that Mathilde would leave something as important as buying a house entirely up to her husband, even if he "wants to surprise her". And the fact that neither Bernard or Mathilde can reveal that they had had a past relationship seems a contrivance too far. The truth will out, and it does, but as the film hasn't fully convinced up to that point, it tips the final third into melodrama.


The Disc

The Woman Next Door is the eleventh of twelve Truffaut features released on Blu-ray and DVD by Artificial Eye. It was received for review in the former format.

The transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.66:1. and faithful to Lubtchansky and Truffaut's generally muted colour palette. Detail and grain look fine and backs are solid: a good transfer.

No complaints about the audio, which is the original mono and is clear and well balanced. English subtitles are optionally available for the feature and the extras. As has been the case with all the Truffaut discs so far, you can only select the commentaries from the extras menu and in each case the appropriate subtitle track is the only one available, and you can only play the feature subtitles with the feature soundtrack. Any other combinations are not available, and the only toggling you can do with your remote is to switch the subtitles on or off.

Eleven out of the twelve films reissued by Artificial Eye were originally released on DVD in France in 2002 by MK2, and have extras carried over from those editions. They begin with an introduction by Serge Toubiana (3:49) and the hard-working Toubiana also moderates not one but two commentaries. One of them is for only a quarter of the film (26:03) and is with Ardant and Depardieu, talking about selected scenes, a pleasant but somewhat inconsequential chat. Commenting on the full hour and three quarters is Véronique Silver, a commentary which is of especial value because – as if the case with some of the other participants in these discs – Silver is no longer with us. She clearly has a great fondness for this film and this role which she goes so far as to suggest is one that very few other filmmakers would have included: an older woman to begin with, and one closely involved in the drama without being the protagonist. In a way she's right: it's hard to imagine someone like Madame Jouve getting so much screentime if this were a Hollywood film.

The final extra is the theatrical trailer (1:40).

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