François Truffaut’s Heroines

Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jacqueline Bisset and François Truffaut in ”La nuit américaine”, 1973 | Les Films du Carrosse, Produzione Intercontinentale Cinematografica

Cinema is a woman’s art, François Truffaut used to say, and the great moments in cinema involve “the convergence of the gifts of a director and those of an actress who is being directed by him.” Just look at Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim and you will realise that that was one of the great moments in cinema as well – the beauty and happiness and energy of a director filming his actress! In his films, it’s his feminine characters who are more dynamic, more enterprising, it’s them who direct events. It’s them he wants to get close to and his close-ups, much more often than when filming men, show that. Even in Tirez sur le pianiste, the two gangsters who kidnap Charlie (Charles Aznavour) talk only about women. One of them even says that his father died in a car accident because “he turned his head after every woman (…) one of them must have had her skirt too short, he didn’t take his eyes off of her and was run over by a car.” And just like that, we are introduced to the precursor of Charles Denner in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes. The male characters in François Truffaut’s movies, just like Truffaut, love women. In his films, he avoided political or social concerns to focus on love and relationships, many times concentrating on character rather than plot and stimulating interest through suspense. Love was the subject of subjects for Truffaut, but it had to have something distinctive about it, never involving general consensus, never packed with artificial problems. An ardent Alfred Hitchcock admirer, Truffaut regularly played with the suspense repertoire, but parted company with Hitchcock in key moments, because François Truffaut’s cinema and style are all his own.

“I was attracted to his world, I think, a world in which women figure importantly usually,” Jacqueline Bisset, who starred in La nuit américaine, told Film Talk. “They are important in his stories and as a woman you feel that. Children are also important, so you feel the sensitivity. His dialogues are so marvellous, so fresh, so personal, cynical at times, all kinds of points of view, even if you look at Jules et Jim [1962] today, you can still recognize all of that. When I was a child I didn’t have lots of media, so when I saw one of his films I let it sit in my mind, it filled a large space with things I didn’t know about. I don’t know picking on any film nowadays when there’s so much media – it just bombards you, whether you can pick up things in the same way.” It is the magic of cinema that Truffaut believed in and made us believe in it, too, even when he made a film about making films, La nuit américaine, seemingly peeling away layers of acting and craft. Much of the mystery and fascination remains. Just as the recurrent question in his films: “Are women magic?” He regularly, eloquently demythologizes this idea, and, still, he goes back to it in almost every movie. The fascination is permanent and vital.

Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in ”Jules et Jim”, 1962 | Les Films du Carrosse, Sédif Productions

Jeanne Moreau (Catherine) in Jules et Jim, 1962

In Jules et Jim, Truffaut wanted to depict something films had never done before: showing a woman who loves two men simultaneously, all her life. And he wanted to do it in a way in which he would keep the film from being typecast into an existing film style. Which he did with exceptional flair: calling it a love triangle would not be quite accurate, because there is a true friendship among the three of them, such freshness, simplicity and naturalness, and the feeling of the eternal present in the relationship of Jules and Jim and Catherine, somehow “the ideal image of romantic life, minus the cruelty brought about by the desire of possession that leads to jealousy”, as Jeanne Moreau explained in a comment about the film. You don’t judge Catherine and you don’t take any sides, because as Jim says to Jules, “she is an apparition for all men, but perhaps not a woman one can have for oneself.” Catherine does not cheat on anyone, she is free and open, but she is ready to punish anyone who lies.

“I believe, just like you do, that in love, the couple is not the ideal formula. You wanted to build something better, refusing hypocrisy, you wanted to invent love. But pioneers have to be humble and selfishless. No, you have to face it, Catherine, we have failed,” says Jim. Catherine is one of those Truffaut heroines who don’t like to be read or judged. Truffaut said that the character “wants to live in the same manner as a man, but that is only a particularity of her personality, and doesn’t represent a feminist attitude or a form of protest.” In fact, Truffaut later admitted that he would have been embarrassed to have made Jules et Jim during the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement. He said he would have been troubled by the similarities that have occurred between his story, in which a woman is queen, and the actions promoted at present by the MLF. Long gone are the days of pure, independent cinema, freed of social and political factors.

Catherine is admired, not loved. Truffaut didn’t seek popularity with his characters. But his film depends heavily on the luminous femininity of Jeanne Moreau, as her character Catherine embarks on a dangerous liaison with bohemian best friends Jules and Jim (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre). Inquisitive, spontaneous, iconoclastic and capricious, the free-spirited Moreau refuses to be understood and she slips between affection and cruelty in her bid to live for a moment forever on the verge of being snatched away. “Her qualities as an actress and as a woman made Catherine real before our eyes, made her plausible, crazy, possessive, passionate, but above all, adorable,” said the director about Jean Moreau, whom he was in love with at the time of making Jules et Jim. “Through me, François learned about women, and through him, I learned about cinema,” Moreau would confess.

Catherine is intensely feminine and sexually provocative even when she disguises herself as Thomas, surprising herself too of how she gets away with wearing men’s clothes and a mustache in a scene of shared dandyism. It was the character’s tomboy fashion that became iconic. The French New Wave invented a whole new cinema style, from experimenting with new film form, to costume approach, embracing an openness to seize whatever happened during filming and using it in the film. As Jeanne Moreau said in an interview, “I was at that age where one lives very egocentrically; I saw it as the chance of a lifetime a chance to escape the ‘star’ style… all of a sudden we were filming in the street with very little makeup, costumes you found yourself. No one was telling me anymore ‘you have circles under your eyes, your face is lopsided’, suddenly it was life.” A lot of the clothes Catherine is wearing in the film, especially the modern clothes she wears after the war (the oversized cardigans and striped sweaters – there are stripes of every kind in Catherine’s wardrobe: from mariniere tops to a single stripe detail around the neckline or sleeve edges of a sweater -, the pleated skirts, the suede mid-calf boots, the espadrilles, the preppy checkered skirts and ties with white shirts, the newsboy cap), belonged to Jeanne. It’s so effortless, but let’s not forget that the dandy woman loves showing off her most hidden feminine side. It’s the male/female puzzle that so much fascinated in those days as it does today.

Delphine Seyrig in ”Baisers volés”, 1968 | Les Films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés


Delphine Seyrig (Fabienne Tabard) in Baisers volés, 1968

“I was thinking of Delphine Seyrig for Baisers volés. The role was written for her. […] Part of the role depended upon the glamour she had gained from her role in L’Année dernière à Marienbad; my film had to have an actress who had made that earlier film – it couldn’t be anyone else.” In Alain Resnais’ film, Delphine is wearing Chanel and the baroque decors (the filming took place at two castles outside of Munich, Nymphenburg and Amalienburg) served as an impressive frame for the elegance and exactitude of Chanel’s dresses, which, in turn, played a crucial role in capturing the restrained passion of A (Delphine Seyrig) but also to piece together a sense of time in a story that constantly misses reality and imagination. Delphine’s wardrobe is so sophisticated, yet so light in details: layers of tulle, wisps of chiffon, delicate lace and dramatic feathers (those sensational white feathery peignoir and black cape), as if especially created to drift unnoticed through the sumptuous corridors and gilded rooms and the architectural, majestic gardens in Resnais’ unconventional and stirring movie. It is in fact a wardrobe that evokes a modern, timeless allure, as Resnais did not want Delphine to wear costumes specifically created for the film. And that, designing clothes that appealed to every woman, Coco Chanel could do better than anyone else.

Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses) is about learning to love, shot with a comical and melancholy tone, with enough acting improvisation which reinforced the unpredictable quality of the scenes. We meet Delphine’s Fabienne Tabard as she enters in the middle of the night the shoe store where Antoine Doinel works because she is in the mood for a pair of Chanel shoes. She wears Chanel, naturally, throughout the film, just as she has in Last Year at Marienbad. And that’s how Doinel discovers this glamorous dream apparition, a graceful silhouette in a black dress wrapped in a white fur and trying on a shoe. She presents herlsef as Mrs. Tabard, the owner’s wife. The inaccessibility occurs. But Truffaut wants to demythologize the concept of “magical woman”. Antoine places her on a pedestal, and when he is invited to her house for lunch, he gets uncomfortable and spills a cup of coffee and runs away, as he always does when he is uncomfortable. But she steps down from that pedestal, goes to his house and joins him in bed. “I am not an apparition, I am a woman. […] For example, this morning, before coming here, I dressed up, I powdered my nose… I made up my eyes and .. crossing Paris, I realised all women do the same thing, for their own pleasure or out of politeness… You say I am exceptional. That’s right, I am, all women are exceptional, everyone in their own way, you are exceptional, too… Your fingerprints are unique… Do you know that? You are unique. We both are unique, unique and irreplaceable.” Unique yet accessible, that could describe perfectly well Coco Chanel’s own style philosophy.

Truffaut admitted he cast Seyrig on account of her reputation, but in a comic way, something she had never attempted but was perfectly capable of delivering. It is the Léaud-Seyrig couple that makes one laugh, because there is indeed an enormous contrast between her and him. And yet… “Moments in which one shouldn’t be afraid to linger – like Delphine Seyrig in Jean-Pierre Léaud’s bedroom, for instance. She can take her time, allow silences to occur – I know that we are going to listen to her.” And we do, because she speaks a tough and profound truth, but which Truffaut had the skill to present as lighthearted.

Jeanne Moreau in ”La mariée était en noir”, 1968 | Les Films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés, Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica


Jeanne Moreau (Julie Kohler) in La mariée était en noir, 1968

Having declined Mike Nichol’s invitation to play Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), Jeanne Moreau reunited with François Truffaut in this homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Moreau, as Julie Kohler, a widow wreaking vengeance on the five men linked to the killing of her husband on their wedding day, eschews tragedy and takes Truffaut’s advice to play the character “like a skilled worker with a job to do, conscientious and obstinate”. Moreau impressed Hitchcock with her performance, who wished she had given poison victim Coral (Michel Bouquet) a pillow “so that he could die with more comfort”.

The Bride Wore Black is actually a film about love that is grounded in a pure feeling, because, for Julie, it involves a love from the past. She herself, on the screen, incarnates a kind of living death. She lives on after her husband only for the sake of avenging him,” Truffaut explained. “I stayed awake at night counting the minutes and seconds that separated me from the moment when I would see him again,” is Julie Kohler’s final confession.

There is no emotion, no guilt in her, and you are not appalled by her actions, because they are part of a necessary plan. And nothing deters her from her goal. Truffaut wanted no artifice, he wanted Jeanne to play the role simply, in a manner that would render her actions believable and human. “No laugh, no smile, no sulking, no bitter expression. I wanted her face to be neither open, nor closed, but normal, determined. I asked her to act without any flirtations, like a man, a man who is thinking about a job he needs to get done. I wanted Jeanne Moreau to remind one less of a goddess of revenge than of someone who is purposeful and efficient. I asked her to act like a skilled craftsman.”

Throughout the film, despite the title, The Bride Wore Black, Julie wears black as well as white (her costumes were fashioned by her ex-lover Pierre Cardin), and Truffaut explained that by dressing her only in black and white in a colour film, she gave the impression that “rather than entering into the setting or leaving from it, one would say that she simply appears or disappears.” We never see her arrive or leave. She is like an apparition, but her presence is less dreamlike and more shocking, foreseeing the worst. White as a validation of her absolute motives, black as a testimony of her preordained fate rather than a punishment for her actions. This duality comes in full play in the sequence where she comes after Fergus (Charles Denner), her fifth victim. He is an artist and she goes to his studio to pose for him as his model. He asks her to dress as Diana the Huntress, in a white dress, with a bow and arrow. Goddess? Huntress? Both. But dressed like that, she’s only playing a role. She doesn’t need a disguise, because she has come dressed in a white dress with a black pattern resembling a grabbing fateful hand (image above).

Catherine Deneuve and Jean Paul Belmondo in ”La sirène du Mississippi”, 1969 | Les Films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés


Catherine Deneuve (Marion Vergano) in La sirène du Mississippi, 1969

François Truffaut attributed part of the failure of La Sirène du Mississippi (the film was poorly received) to the difficulty he had persuading the public to accept an actor like Jean Paul Belmondo in the role of a defeated, desperate man: “It’s not hard to understand what shocked the Western world. La Sirène shows a man who is weak (despite his looks) captivated by a woman who is strong (despite her appearance).” What did Truffaut do? He switched the male and female roles, imagining Catherine as “a boy, a hoodlum who’d been through hard times”, and Jean Paul as “a young girl who was expecting everything from marriage”. Catherine’s Marion is an orphan, a prostitute, accomplice to murder and attempts murder. She is streetwise, cynical, an usurper. Jean Paul’s Louis Mahé, a plantation owner on Reunion Island, is rich but naïve, trusting and indifferent to his wealth, still a boy.

The film was based on William Irish’s novel “Waltz into Darkness”, but Truffaut felt he had to bring it to contemporary times, precisely because gender roles had begun to interplay, and because the contrasts between the good and the bad were considerably reduced. The villain was not entirely bad and the victim wasn’t entirely good anymore, there are much more understandable, regardless of their flaws and mistakes, things were not black and white anymore, they had become grey. It is again a love story. The story of a man who marries a woman who is the exact opposite of what he was expecting. But he falls in love and accepts her as she is. At the same time, he becomes a man, finally learning about life. It’s again the subject most dear to Truffaut, because the film is less a thriller than a study of love, of a couple, of real characters in intense situations, which makes them react in a genuine way.

Beautiful and mysterious, hidden behind her opaqueness and inaccessibility, with her crisp, realistic acting, Catherine Deneuve’s femme fatale taps into that “paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface”, as Truffaut himself put it, categorization that defined Hitchcock’s blondes. In fact, throughout her entire career, Deneuve has not been afraid of taking complex roles that ruffled and darkened the surface of her beauty. Deneuve’s icy, mysterious cool blonde look would have been indeed perfect for an Alfred Hitchcock noir or thriller – Catherine reportedly admitted that she would have loved to make Marnie with Hitchcock. I like that Mississippi Mermaid is an unusual noir, capturing the dark spirit of classic noir and putting it into a setting that is rotting and tropical, the decaying colonial backdrop of Réunion Island.

Catherine is dressed in Yves Saint Laurent and some of her outfits were part of the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Spring-Summer 1968 collection. Catherine Deneuve “was the woman he was waiting for, the one who is his style”, the modern woman who saw beyond haute couture and embraced the times, life, the street wise, a new kind of luxury that had nothing to do with made-to-measure and everything to do with ready-to-wear. The first act of the film takes place on the island and the clothes perfectly fit the exotic scene. The designer made great use of his safari styles, like a mini-dress version of the safari jacket, reminiscent of the iconic deep lace-up neckline design Saint Laurent had created in 1968, which was immortalized by Veruschka in a series of photographs by Franco Rubartelli, or a safari skirt suit with a jacket that respects the sketch of the designer’s first safari jacket, from his Spring/Summer 1967 haute couture collection.

In the second act of the film, set in a few locations in France, like Aix-en-Provence and Lyon, Catherine’s wardrobe is just as simple, with clothes that denote the practicality the designer’s creations came to embody, but which nonetheless serve the plot beautifully. I am particularly speaking about the little black dress towards the end of the film, first worn with a trench coat and then with the black feathered Rive Gauche beau manteau, the most ornate wardrobe item in the entire film, a counterpoint between realism and the imagination, between the classical and the baroque. The eccentric ostrich feather collar could easily cause Marion to be spotted by the police. When the cops arrive in the apartment in Lyon and Marion and Louis have to try to recover the money they have left upstairs, Louis stops Marion because her coat could give her away. And she answers: “Are you crazy? What’s wrong with this coat?” They are as much lovers on the run as they are an ordinary married couple going about the little everyday life things. There’s Truffaut’s counterpoint between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between reality and fiction.

Of Yves Saint Laurent, François Truffaut said he was the greatest cinephile among the fashion designers. He “really understood what cinema costumes had to be like, and he designed them both for their movement and style. The little feather coat at the end, which caused me a lot of worry as far as its execution was concerned, thanks to him, turned out to be a character in the film” in that ending that was a final indirect homage to Renoir and his La grande illusion.

Brigitte Fossey and Charles Denner in ”L’Homme qui aimait les femmes”, 1977 | Les Films du Carrosse


Brigitte Fossey (Geneviève Bigey) in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes, 1977

I had to laugh when I read about The Man Who Loved Women being categorized as anti-feminist (it isn’t even worth mentioning where). Bertrand Morand is not a chauvinist, just as Truffaut’s film is not anti-feminist. “The immense sadness of films without women,” the director used to say. “I hate war films, except for the moment when the soldier takes out of his pocket the photo of a woman.” Truffaut said that he simply wanted to tell a story in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes. “This is a feminist film made after my fashion”.

He also wanted to investigate further the character of Ferguson that he and Charles Denner had created in 1968, in La Mariée étairen noir. Denner thus followed in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Léaud, becoming another alter ego for Truffaut. The film-maker said he chose Denner because he had “a natural seriousness, he rarely smiles – he has something fierce, wild about him”. Bertrand Morane is a seducer. He is obsessed with women’s legs, he loves to see them walk, nothing is more beautiful to him than a woman in motion, because seeing her walk is seeing her walk into his world. His world is formed of women and it takes all these women to make up a world. “Bertrand is not however portrayed as the conventional womaniser. Truffaut makes no apology for him, he is not presented sympathetically,” concludes Robert Ingram in the book “François Truffaut: The Complete Films”. We see him as he is. “He is not arrogant, nor does he force his attention upon women,” Ingram continues.

He is the natural seducer, he does not idolatrize some women in the detriment of others. He generously recognises the attractive potential in every woman. They are all unique and irreplaceable. He is capable of traveling hundreds of kilometers to find an unknown woman he barely saw, as if his life depended on it. He is a loner, he has no family, no friends, he is happy in the company of women. And by responding to every look a woman gives him – the look of a married woman he sees in a restaurant, the look of a young woman who comes to the window with a book in her hand – he is confronted with his raison d’être. It is only this way, by responding to every woman, by delaying solitude, that he has the illusion of vitality.

“Who are all these women, and where are they going? Who are they meeting? (…) I will tell you the truth: they all want the same thing as me, they want love …” At the very end, at his funeral (he was badly injured when he was chasing a woman in the street, then died at the hospital falling from his bed while trying to look at the legs of a nurse – yes, Truffaut saw the humour in the tragic), Geneviève Bigey (Brigitte Fossey) says: “Bertrand looked for happiness in quantity, in the multitude.” She is the only one who got it right. Geneviève is the editor of the book he had written and which is about to be published, “L’Homme qui aimait les femmes”, which he wrote as a tribute to all the women in his life, because otherwise “I am afraid I will forget”. But maybe he is also afraid of him being forgotten if he doesn’t write the book. A book ensures its writer timelessness, too. And that’s where the idea of Truffaut’s alter ego comes in full play. “It was inevitable,” Truffaut said about the ending. “I was working on something that was mythic. You have to respect the law of myth.”

But let’s return to the character of Geneviève. She is the only one who is given enough screen time for us to be acquainted with her, we get to know what she does, what she likes. Even the costumes seem to be more carefully chosen for her: the elegant camel coat, the high boots, the knee-length skirts, the knitted cardigans. It’s like we are let in not only on her outer world, but on her inner world as well, and on a could-be relationship, could-be life together of the two. She is, after all, the one Bertrand gets to make plans with, only he doesn’t get to honour them because he dies. But, most importantly, she is the only one who has the exact intuition, and isn’t this saying a lot again about Truffaut’s female characters? The director gives the narrative control of the film to a woman.

Catherine Deneuve in ”Le dernier métro”, 1980 | Les Films du Carrosse, Sédif Productions


Catherine Deneuve (Marion Steiner) in Le dernier métro, 1980

In Le dernier métro (The Last Métro), Truffaut approached a subject he has never attempted before: the war and the Occupation. But this is not a political film, as this wasn’t in Truffaut’s nature, he wanted to focus on characters and feelings, especially characters in an exceptional atmosphere. The war is simply a background. This is once again an intimate study of a complicated love triangle. The idea of the film came to him and Suzanne Schiffman, his trusted collaborator, after reading Jean Marais’ autobiography and the memoirs of other actors from the period. He wanted to make a film about theater on the backdrop of the Occupation, a time when creativity flourished despite the tragedy in real life, a time when many theaters in Paris remained open and run by women, as is the case in Le dernier métro. “The world was living through a tragedy, but as far as artistic life was concerned, this was a great period, especially for theater. Television did not exist, people were living in solitude, cold, with restriction, anxiety. Theater could provide a rare form of escape.”

Lucas Steiner, a famous Jewish playwright and director of Montmartre Theater has supposedly fled Paris and his wife, Marion (Catherine Deneuve – she had the same name in Mississippi Mermaid), has taken over the theater business. She is also the star of the ensemble. Gérard Depardieu (Bernard Granger – Depardieu‘s character in the following La femme d’a cote will also be named Bernard) is a talented young actor who is hired for the play Steiner has written and which now, in his absence, is staged by Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret). Both Deneuve and Depardieu embody a sort of anti-heroes, compromising characters. They are human, more so, they are humans in harsh times, during the war, when people had to live with compromises, and for good reason. “I didn’t make a dark film, but I think that I am also speaking in it of the cruelty of everyday life. […] More than anything else, my film embodies a notion of compromise and tolerance. Instead, my characters have obsessions. They do not necessarily achieve their goals, but they keep on pursuing them nonetheless.”

“Le dernier métro” alludes not only to the curfew during the war and to the fact that Parisians had to make sure to catch the last metro home, but it’s also an illustration of the American slogan “The show must go on.” Serge Toubiana remarked how Truffaut considered that a film taking place during the Occupation should occur at night, in enclosed spaces, suggesting the idea of confinement, frustration, danger. They used an old factory as main set, a “studio” element rather unusual for Truffaut. But this did not take away from the authenticity and vitality of the story (great attention was given to the smallest of details, like, for example, to the music and the radio programmes of the time portraying a convincing image of everyday life in the 1940s) and it was the perfect backdrop for the enigmatic progression of the story and the rising tension in the third act (the historical events may not have been the central subject, but the film presents a complex and clever portrait of the time and the thin line between resistance and collaboration).

Truffaut wrote the role for Catherine Deneuve. “I was thinking of her natural authority, and also of her age: she is now thirty-five and it is time she give up playing young women with hair down to their shoulders. It was during the war and women began to manage theaters. […] Catherine Deneuve is both feminine and energetic, in a plausible way. I like the way that she always seems to project on the screen a double life: an apparent life, and a secret life. One gets the impression that she is keeping her thoughts to herself, and that her inner life is at least as important as her outer life.” In one of the sequences with her husband, the camera is placed somewhere above their heads and as she get close to Lucas to kiss him, the camera zooms in on her hair, that perfectly coiffed blonde hair, and that camera movement reminded me of Hitchcock’s shot of Kim Novak in Vertigo. The double life.

François Truffaut recalled how Chanel No.5 was almost part of the character. At the beginning of the film, Marion is talking about how her husband came to know her, and says he has kidnapped her from the world of fashion and that he said that if she had refused, he would have asked Mademoiselle Chanel to fire her. Of course, Catherine Deneuve has been a model for Chanel No. 5 in the 1970s, and Truffaut knew how to make use of this social reality that actors have and that you can’t get around very easily. “All the roles that an actor has performed accumulate to give him or her an image that it is impossible to overcome entirely. It is better to go with it.” But the beauty of Catherine Deneuve in this film, as a woman torn between two men, is that she displays a humanity and versatility she rarely lets surface from her icy, enigmatic blonde beauty that consecrated her. In Truffaut’s film, the film that truly made her shine through, she is an actor, not a star, not an icon, and that’s his homage to her.

Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant in ”La femme d’à côté”, 1981 | Les Films du Carrosse, TF1 Films Production


Fanny Ardant (Mathilde Bauchard) in La femme d’à côté, 1981

La femme d’à côté is one of my favourite Truffaut films, a beautifully composed film, stylized and harmonious, conceived by a film-maker in full possession of his craft. Truffaut wanted to bring a man and a woman who had loved each other in the past face to face, something he had been taking notes on, but, because he was a director who liked complications and detours and had a Hitchcock affinity, he wanted to do it in his own singular style. He went for the theme of “the conjugal thriller, a thriller without gangsters where the police remain in the background and the action is led from start to finish by the imagination of a woman.”

Fanny Ardant is Mathilde Bauchard and Gérard Depardieu is Bernard Coudray. He lives with his wife and son in a little provincal town near Grenoble, France. Mathilde moves with her husband next door. We soon find out that Mathilde and Bernard were lovers in the past, a relationship that ended bad. But soon after they meet again by chance as neighbors, Mathilde knows right away, before he does, that their encounter can not remain innocent. She takes the reins, right to the end.

“I immediately spotted and appreciated in Fanny Ardant the qualities I most frequently look for in the protagonists of my films: vitality, courage, enthusiasm, humour, intensity but also, to counterbalance those, a taste of secrecy, a wild side, a touch of savagery and, above all, something vibrant. […] She reminds me of the Brontë sisters, she’s like all three Brontë sisters rolled into one.” For La femme d’à côté, her first movie role, he wanted her very beautiful, said William Lubtchansky, Truffaut’s cinematographer. Truffaut was worried that Fanny, tall and well-built, might appear too masculine, so they had to choose the costumes and hair styles very carefully. She is “the unintentional femme fatale”, says Véronique Silver, who played a crucial character in the film, one of those supporting roles that make a film come full circle, Madame Jouve. “There is a mystery about Fanny Ardant, in her smile and poise”. Gérard Depardieu recounted how he himself felt during filming, saying that he sensed that they were making a scary film about love, very Hitchcockian. That dangerous, permanent attraction neither of them can escape is felt throughout the film. Their tragedy is that they can not love or suffer at the same time, but they can’t live apart either.

There is something different about Mathilde’s clothes, too, from the opening costume, the way she is filmed, from the back and from the feet up, in a grey suit that made me think again of Vertigo and Kim Novak, the trench coat, the white shirt, the two pieces Chanel-like looks, her clothes are definitely femme fatale, unlike Bernard’s wife’s (played by Michèle Baumgartner), which are more feminine, in floral patterns and very innocent. Truffaut wanted the two women to be very distinctive and had Michèle’s hair, a natural brunette, cut short and dyed blonde in order to seem more anchored in everyday life. Truffaut knew how to punctuate a scene not only through dialogue, but through details, too. In the most disturbing scene in the film, when Bernard becomes violent, an act of physical violence without precedent in Truffaut’s cinema, Mathilde is wearing a green dress. Commenting on the film, Véronique Silver jokes that “Green is a colour you shouldn’t wear, in theater is the colour of death.” It suggests both attraction and the potential for harm.

Towards the end of the film, when her husband brings her the clothes she had asked for before getting out of the hospital after her breakdown, Mathilde goes through them and picks the white blouse between the two in her suitcase, clearly underlying her choice: “This is the one I want.” The trench coat is also clearly stated out. It’s for the final sequence and, as in all great films noir, the end can not be but one.
Editorial sources: Truffaut on Cinema, compiled by Anne Gillain / François Truffaut at Work, by Carole Le Berre / François Truffaut, bãrbatul care iubea filmele, by Magda Mihãilescu / François Truffaut: The Complete Films, by Robert Ingram / The Films in My Life, by François Truffaut / Yves Saint Laurent, published by Foundation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent / audio commentaries with Serge Toubiana, Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu and Véronique Silver on The François Truffaut Collection and The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, released by Artificial Eye / interview with Jacqueline Bisset for Film Talk
More stories: Hitchcock Style: Grace Kelly in Rear Window / The French Noir Anti-Hero and the Trench Coat / Catherine Deneuve in Belle de jour


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