At least as Jamesian as his La chambre verte (The Green Room) three years earlier, which is drawn from two stories by Henry James, François Truffaut’s La femme d’à côté posits a slippery narrative about a doomed love affair. The narrator, Odile Jouve, alerts us to the fact that things aren’t always as they seem; Truffaut is Mme. Jouve’s blatant accomplice in this. Introducing herself to us at the outset, Jouve appears from the waist up against the backdrop of a tennis court. You would think, she notes, that she is a tennis player; but then she instructs the cameraman to pull back, whereupon the fuller image of her shows that she is a cripple. It happens she is the proprietor of this tennis club. There is more: Jouve’s crippling, we learn, was the outcome of a suicide attempt following the collapse of a love affair. This is the seemingly dispassionate observer from whom we hear—and “see”—the tale of another such affair. Indeed, we learn so little about Jouve we might be forgiven for wondering whether this tale refers to her own sexual history—a tantalizing possibility made all the more plausible by the fact that we directly learn so little about this woman, perhaps the most intriguing character in the film. Regardless, Jouve’s unhappy love affair is, at a minimum, mixed in with the affair that she chronicles, coloring it, and perhaps even representing or projecting it in a transmuted or metaphorical form. We may be “seeing” while watching this film what Jouve is slyly directing us to see as a mischievous storyteller might.
One moment in the film causes our heart to jump. Feeding her pet, Jouve slips, falling onto the floor. The scene doubtless refers to the collapsing bicycle in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), a film about (among other things) the precarious balancing act that life may demand of us. In Truffaut’s film, the collapsing cripple might imply her cockeyed or unbalanced perspective—the very perspective through which we directly receive the narrative of Truffaut’s film.
What is this narrative about? Two former lovers, each married, find themselves next-door neighbors in a lovely provincial setting. They become lovers again, re-igniting powerful emotions that prove beyond their control and perhaps endurance. At different times each struggles against his or her sexual obsession with the other, feigning, or genuinely epitomizing, aloofness. Throughout this second coming of their affair, neither tells his or her spouse about the “first coming.” Some reviewers, attending to a film different than the one I’ve seen four times, take as prescription the man’s wife’s remark to her spouse, when the cat is finally out of the bag, “You should have trusted me,” “You should have told me something.” These misguided reviewers think such openness would have aborted the problem, nipping it in the bud, so to speak. But Truffaut shows no mercy to the cheated-on spouses, who seem remarkably incurious about their spouses. Consider Arlette, Bernard’s wife, who when Bernard early on blurts out, referring to neighbor Mathilde, “She just doesn’t belong here,” asks just once what he means and is instantly satisfied by his silly, superficial response. If nothing else, Arlette seems monstrously complacent, and Mathilde’s husband, Philippe, is her match in this regard until territorial jealousy kicks in.
Glimmers of Odile sparkle in Mathilde in what is, after all, the former’s “account” of Mathilde and Bernard. When they run into one another in a car port and have their first kiss since the time of their original affair, Mathilde collapses to the floor, as Odile soon will at home. The cars might suggest the nature of Odile’s crippling suicide attempt. Later, a glance af her wrist tells Bernard the nature of Mathilde’s suicide attempt. When Bernard, at this point fearful of the passion that Mathilde causes to erupt in him, absents himself from the scheduled dinner with the new neighbors, he dines instead with Odile. (Veal stew.) In effect, he is safely substituting Odile for Mathilde—a way for Odile, and of course Truffaut, to suggest their symbolical connection. One must also note that this is the occasion of Odile’s sudden slip. Eventually, Mathilde suffers a breakdown and winds up in a mental hospital; setting aside the suggestion of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) here, one easily imagines that Odile also has spent time in such a setting.
The film ends tragically. Or does it? Follow the ironical twists and turns of my reading of this accomplished (if somewhat tedious) film, and the lurid ending is, really, deliciously open-ended.
Gérard Depardieu, as Bernard, gives one of his finest performances; no wonder Fanny Ardant, who plays Mathilde, for a spell caught Truffaut’s eye and heart; and Véronique Silver’s astute poise and composure as Odile suggests a charming soul who has survived the sexual and emotional turmoils of her youth.
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