Francois Truffaut's new film, "The Woman Next Door," is a tragi-farce. Whether such a style is workable is still an open question.
It is not tragi-comedy, in the sense of showing two sides of the emotional coin, but an attempt to conduct a drama about lovers being doomed by their character flaws during a steady bombardment of silly accidents, outrageous coincidences, pratfalls and comic melees. Just as everyone is trying to live through the most delicate test of concealing passion under conventionality, the heroine's dress is snatched off by a nail in her chair and the kitchen catches fire.
The more subtle of these touches are charming visual jokes. The lovers, desperately trying to fight their desires, yield and telephone each other in exactly the same time pattern, so each keeps getting a busy signal. They are shown driving in a car, sullen and worn from deciding to end the affair; they are then seized by uncontrollable lust; and, that taken care of, they drive on with the same sullen and worn expressions.
The lovers, humorously played by Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant, are people of similar temperament who were disastrous for each other and broke off their affair years ago to marry others, with whom they have been happy. As the film opens, they have been thrown together again through the accident of becoming neighbors in a small town, and the consuming flame is rekindled.
If the affair is hard on them, it's worse on the spectator, because their entire conversation alternates between the same statements of advance ("I must talk to you") and retreat ("No, no, we must end this"). Realistic, no doubt, but tedious. The point is also clumsily supported by the narration of an older woman whom a long-past affair left crippled -- emotionally, of course, but physically, too -- and by an unrelated, overheard snide conversation about the danger of affairs between neighbors.
But the basic weakness is that the farcical elements encourage an attitude of ridicule toward the most seriously meant occurrences. In the midst of a nervous breakdown the heroine bitterly reviews her medications by saying, "I even have a pill to cheer me up -- two of them would make me hiliarious," and the urge to reply "Take two! Take two!" is almost irresistible.
One cannot really say, though, that the farce spoils the tragedy. The farce is often top-notch -- and the tragedy is that it keeps getting broken up by the tragedy.
THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR -- Opens this Friday at Janus 3.