THE SOFT SKIN (“La peau douce,” Francois Truffaut, 1964, France)

LA PEAU DOUCE || 1964, France || Drama || Directed by – Francois Truffaut / Produced by – Michel Berbert, Antonio da Cunha Telles, Francois Truffaut / Written by – Francois Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard / Music by – Georges Delerue / Cinematography by – Raoul Coutard / Edited by – Claudine Bouché / Starring – Jean Desailly, Francoise Dorleac, Nelly Benedetti / Running time: 113 mins.

thesoftskinposterAfter the critical and commercial success of Jules and Jim, and The 400 Blows before it, Francois Truffaut was sitting on top of the world and hailed as the quintessential young French filmmaker of the influential New Wave. As development of his pet project Fahrenheit 451 stalled, he thought of the story for The Soft Skin, a romantic drama that he could make fast.

The Soft Skin chronicles the affair between Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), a well-known writer and editor of a literary magazine and a beautiful air hostess named Nicole (Francoise Dorleac), whom he meets on his flight to a conference in Geneva and starts an affair with.

The Soft Skin, like virtually every one of Truffaut’s films, is very personal, though at the time the personal influence was played down in favour of its more sensationalist connection with the “Jacoud affair” in Geneva, Switzerland, of the mid-fifties: the murder of a dealer in agricultural machinery at the hands of his wife. It was, in reality, a cinematic representation of Truffaut’s complicated personal situation at home with his then-wife Madeleine Morgenstern and actress and star of The Soft Skin, Dorleac. The final product can therefore be seen as an exercise in “self-psychoanalysis.” The innovative cinematographer Raoul Coutard was instructed by Truffaut to shoot the film like a Hitchcock movie, which creates an almost oneiric type of tension. This uneasy energy is also heightened by the very ambiguity of the film, the source of the emotional energy of The Soft Skin. There is, in fact, nothing visibly wrong in the marriage and family life of Lachenay, and there is just as much reason to empathize with Lachenay as there is to take the side of his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti). While this very aspect would alienate the film from the traditionalist and passive viewer, it is also precisely its winning ingredient.

Though The Soft Skin is far from being the most praised film in Truffaut’s great career, it remains one of the most painstakingly personal, to the point of, arguably, being selfish, films that were ever brought to the screen so unflinchingly. His desire to make this film fast is also, perhaps, representative of Truffaut’s need to make such films to deal with his own personal demons. As far as the acting itself is concerned, it remains unimpressive. Desailly is awkwardly cast in the role of Lachenay, and Dorleac adds a sense of malignancy that paints her Nicole as a temptress, rather than the embodiment of the sexually independent woman of the early 60’s. It is no surprise to find that neither actor was particularly fond of their given role. Nevertheless, Truffaut is more attentive, though never excessively explicit, to sexuality – adultery, desire, fetishism and sex – in The Soft Skin than in any other film. This is, perhaps, another aspect of the movie that reveals how ultimately Truffaut was able to manipulate both cast and crew into making a film that he, himself, wanted to make and see for his own sake. – 4/5

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