A kind of ominous kismet hangs over Francois Truffaut's "The Woman Next Door." It moves the plot along, placing the hero's former lover in the house across the way, then throwing them together offhandedly. They collide at the tennis court, the market, at dinner parties. These two just can't seem to avoid each another.
Of course, they don't want to, even when disaster is around the bend. The 1981 movie, screening Friday as the first installment in Golden West College's foreign film series (Related story below), is another worried pirouette on Truffaut's theme of obsessive love and fully claimed passion. He's done much of these steps before, most notably in the superior "The Story of Adele H" (1975), but its introspection generates intimacy.
And heavy-handedness. The indiscreet affair that erupts between Bernard (Gerard Depardieu) and Mathilde (Fanny Ardant) is madly emotional. Although the tone is pessimistic, their infatuation is almost farcical. Truffaut milks their alternately euphoric and miserable feelings.
That can be affecting. Truffaut has long known how to create a bond between the viewer and his film's characters. The passion between Bernard and Mathilde is something we want to believe in; it seems to transcend life. But when you're not exhilarated, you may feel like reprimanding them for being such careless and selfish simps.
They both have wonderful mates. Bernard's wife, Arlette (Michele Baumgartner), is pretty and dutiful. She puts up with his moodiness like a saint. Mathilde's husband, Philippe (Henri Garcin), is even better--a bit boring, but devoted and kind. Bernard and Mathilde seem happy in their domestic nests, spending ordinary days, until they become neighbors.
They had a volatile relationship eight years earlier, Mathilde giving him the brush-off after he refused to commit. She's almost unbearably beautiful, so it's not surprising when Mathilde begins to invade his thoughts. Pretty soon he's invading her clothes.
Truffaut presents Mathilde and Bernard as being vaguely off, characters like his lovers in "Jules and Jim" (1962), who are beside themselves with emotions. But these hints at instability don't prepare us for the shocker ending, which is supposed to be a natural outcome of their destructive desire but seems melodramatic and unjust.
"The Woman Next Door" often clicks in its satiric takes on marriage, seen as a refuge, but a terribly mundane one. After meeting again, Bernard and Mathilde feel unfulfilled and faintly ridiculous (Bernard certainly has a ridiculous job, training sea freighter captains on miniature boat replicas in a small lake) in their family roles and seek to rejuvenate themselves through each other. And through sex, the temporary fix that lets them forget what they are.
Francois Truffaut's "The Woman Next Door" begins Golden West College's foreign film series tonight at 7:30 at the Forum II theater, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach. Tickets: $3 and $3.50. Information: (714) 891-3991.