Starring: Jean Desailly, Francoise Dorleac, Nelly Benedetti
Director: Francois Truffaut
An odd title, The Soft Skin (or Silken Skin), for a movie of such hard surfaces. Truffaut’s fourth film is a kind of acerbic afterthought to his hugely successful third, Jules and Jim, a reaction to its all-consuming romantic madness and surrender. Like Jules et Jim, it’s a typically French tale of amour fou, only played out at a temperature that seems to serve up the heartbreak with a crust of ice.
The protagonist is one Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), a celebrity intellectual (posters go up when he’s in town for a lecture, and nubile girls seeks him out for his autograph – only in France, eh?). He’s also a family man, with a wife and daughter, and one adroit panning shot sketches in his cosy, industrious and desirable life in a chic flat crammed with mod cons, hidden doors and split levels (it was Truffaut’s own flat, and it must have been like living inside a Rubik’s cube). But then, on a trip to Lisbon, Pierre sleeps with Nicole (Francoise Dorleac), a flight stewardess, and the affair continues when they return to Paris. He shows every sign of being infatuated. What does this mean for his well-ordered existence?
The early parts of the film have a strange, almost subterranean dynamic. It’s hard to work out what Pierre wants from Nicole. It’s probably not sex. As played by Jean Dessailly, Lachenay seems to live through the mind rather than the body: his face is boyish but the flesh has gone slack and droopy; you doubt he gets much exercise. Besides, if it’s sex it wants, you get the impression that his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) is only too happy to oblige. She’s an almost fiercely erotic figure. She’s forever in her slip, showing some nice cleavage, and she claws at Pierre’s lapels like a cat with desire and rage. You’re grateful for the earthiness she brings to proceedings, but perhaps he isn’t. He does, though, seem to take pleasure in surrounding himself with the trappings of a sleek technological world, and maybe that’s why he likes Nicole: she’s cool and modern. Maybe he feels he owes himself a stewardess.
It’s presumably because she’s being filtered through Pierre’s perceptions that Nicole seems, for much of the film, like a figment. Made at a time when, for international audiences, French films were synonymous with daring naughtiness and glimpses of nudity, The Soft Skin belies its own title by putting almost no skin on screen, certainly very little of Francoise Dorleac’s. You have to swallow hard to accept the idea of liaison between them. As they sit in his car, him in his homburg and overcoat, her in her uniform and a massively gauzy headscarf that makes her look like a cross between a nun and a beekeeper, you wonder what they’re doing together. You feel almost as if you’ve blinked and missed the crucial scene where they discover that spark of mutual excitement and understanding (but perhaps Truffaut is saying that is how it is – people just sleepwalk into these things). There’s a fleeting moment when Nicole dances for Pierre in a restaurant in a chic, open-backed dress, but that is the film’s only gesture towards presenting her as a conventional object of desire.
Their mutual infatuation seems to happen, not quite in a haze, but in a lucid dream. However, once it gets past the first flush of romance onto the messy business of cheating on your wife, The Soft Skin suddenly snap wide awake, and it’s in examining this aspect of things that the film really finds its feet. A road trip to Reims for a lecture on Andre Gide that’s supposed to be a nice getaway for the pair of them turns into a logistical nightmare (and a virtuoso flurry of cross-cutting) as Pierre dashes back and forth, trying to divide his time between a meet and greet with local worthies and his increasingly disenchanted mistress, cooling her heels in a cheap hotel. The key passage in the film, it culminates in a queasily painful sequence where he walks out of a cinema with a friend and Nicole is there, waiting for him loyally. Spinelessly, he pretends not to know her and leaves her to the bleakness of the night. It’s a sequence that practically heaves with shame and guilt, and you sense that here Truffaut is doing penance for some similar act of weakness in his own life.
There are only a couple of moments when Nicole steps outside of Pierre’s view of her and we see her for who she really is, but when she does, you like her, and Dorleac’s performance blossoms into warmth and sweetness. Pierre’s right, she is modern, but not in a way he understands. She’s not overly deep or passionate, but she’s open-hearted, not at all possessive, and her personal code is a kind of emotional honesty. There’s a touching moment, when things are going badly between them, where she fumblingly offers to let him sleep with her from time to time, so he can wean himself off her. And there’s also a vignette in the cockpit of the plane back from Lisbon – it’s the only time we get a real frisson of sensuality from her – when she reaches familiarly, strokingly, into the co-pilot, Frank’s, breast pocket for a pen and uses it to write her telephone number on a matchbook for Pierre. Frank was her lover, now he’s her friend; he’s happy either way, and she shares an easy comradeship with him. It’s a side of her that we glimpse but that Pierre will never comprehend or appreciate.
And what of Pierre? As with Nicole, it takes a while for the film to put together the pieces of his character, but when it does, you feel that Truffaut has nailed him. Pierre is a combination of shyness and raging egotism. Fatally, he brings that ego into his relationships with women. It’s a withering portrait of a man who has everything and who wants nothing except to get what he wants.
The cold surfaces of the film are usually attributed to Truffaut’s devotion to Hitchcock. While it’s true that the beginnings of the affair are assembled according to Hitchcockian mechanisms, the movie that is the most obvious template for The Soft Skin is Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). You can see its influence throughout. Both share the same kind of love triangle, the same literary and intellectual milieu; Dessailly has something of Marcello Mastroianni’s weak handsomeness; Benedetti wandering around in her slip makes you think of Jeanne Moreau doing exactly the same in Antonioni’s film, also in a Chinese puzzle of a flat (did Truffaut see the flat in the Antonioni film and decide he wanted to live in one exactly the same?)
The Soft Skin doesn’t have the warmth and easy charm one usually associates with Truffaut, but the very fact that it’s relatively difficult and closed-in lends it its own kind of fascination. It’s also one of the most skilfully made of all the director’s films, employing a bravura range of techniques from long, carefully choreographed single takes to furious montages. Almost everything, including the Lisbon scenes, seems to have been shot on location to brilliant effect (by Raoul Coutard, whose credits in the years 1960-1967 are a roll call of Nouvelle Vague gems; it’s a testament to his versatility that he’d just come off shooting Godard’s Le Mépris, which is as hot, sultry, colour-saturated and lascivious as The Soft Skin is cold, grey and chaste). The brightly lit, clinically sharp cinematography comes up dazzlingly well on this DVD, without a trace of grain or dirt.
The extras Include a brisk 4-minute intro, in French with subtitles, that gives the background to the film, and an audio commentary with Jean-Louis Richard, the co-scriptwriter. He explains that the movie was written quickly, in under a month, after Truffaut’s hopes of making Fahrenheit 451 fell through temporarily, and talks about the film’s chilly reception – apparently the audience started drifting out halfway through the premiere at Cannes.
Three other films by Francois Truffaut are being released by Artificial Eye on DVD and Blu-ray in August, 2014: The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board.