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Married author, publisher and minor literary celebrity Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) meets stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) on a speaking excursion to Lisbon. The attraction is such that they sneak time together almost immediately. Caught up in Nicole's charms, Pierre neglects his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and young daughter Sabine. A personal appearance in Reims seems an excellent opportunity to spend a weekend away with Nicole, but the event planners monopolize Pierre's time, and Nicole ends up spending their hot getaway waiting on the street, where she's harassed by local goons. Franca has no difficulty discovering her husband's deception. Pierre seizes on her protests as an opportunity to explain nothing, and move out. Soon he's planning to marry Nicole... and not taking Nicole's desires into account any more than he does Franca's.
The smoothly directed The Soft Skin is much more attuned to cutting and precise camera angles than the loose, improvisational visual style Truffaut had shown before. The first film made after his marathon interview sessions for the Alfred Hitchcock interview book, it does indeed look as if Truffaut were absorbing the influence of his mentor. One can practically quote sections of Hitch's teachings while watching it. Truffaut hits us with subjective POVs and reverses, reaching for telling object inserts to carry the story instead of dialogue. He manipulates the editing to hurry up, slow down and even suspend time. An elevator ride is extended to make the moment of connection between Pierre and Nicole last longer, the better to savor it. He freeze-frames two shots as their eyes finally lock together at the moment of truth: we're really involved here...
Truffaut's adoption of Hitchcockian stylistics in The Soft Skinis not a theory imposed by critics. The extras on Criterion's release allow Truffaut to twice repeat a remark about his mentor: "Hitchcock shoots murder scenes like love scenes, and love scenes like murder scenes." This show does indeed dip into shadow or silhouette when people kiss or embrace, after voyeuristically soaking up all of the nervous erotic excitement that comes before. Nicole's feet and legs mesmerize Pierre, a point enhanced when he rushes to buy her a replacement set of nylons. He later removes these stockings while she sleeps, with the dreamy concentration of a Buñuel hero. It is a sign that things are not well. Pierre is intoxicated by primary sexual lures -- those legs, that skin -- while not really getting closer to Nicole the woman. A complete amateur in skirt-chasing, Pierre drags Nicole out of town and then must ignore her and make her wait for him. She quickly becomes incensed, and then infuriated. Are these the signs of a relationship that can last?
It's not hard to see why The Soft Skin was not a huge success. Jean Desailly has an interesting and sympathetic face, but his Pierre is not a forceful lover or even a nice guy. He's far too comfortable playing the mini-celebrity, criticizing his contributing writers behind their backs. He also takes his cozy home life for granted. Pierre can become emotionally excited talking about Balzac, a genius who apparently achieved great things by at all times risking failure. But Pierre plays things safe. He doesn't know himself well enough to appreciate what he's got. He treats his wife and daughter at home as mere possessions. He's particularly cruel to Franca, manipulating her justified anger to pretend that he's the wounded party, that the reason he's bolting is something she's done. When personal confrontations are concerned, Pierre is a coward. A straight-up cad would be more honorable.
I think there's some of Truffaut in Pierre, except that Truffaut appears to have been far more considerate. His image is that of the kind of Frenchman who maintained multiple lifelong love affairs, yet never estranged any of them; like The Man Who Loved Women, his lovers didn't mind sharing him. At least that's the myth. Never a really organized storyteller, Truffaut gives this film shape with his Hitchcock borrowings, all of which work well. But the picture's sympathetic, inconclusive critique of the Pierre Lachenay character is pure Truffaut. Pierre hasn't for a moment considered that Nicole might have long-range plans of her own. Is he too old for her? Does she really want to spend her nights listening to Pierre orate about great authors? I like the moment on Nicole's stairwell when Pierre passes Nicole's father, who is on his way up. Pierre pauses to hear Nicole greet the older man. Does Pierre want to make sure papa is really papa, and not another slightly older gentleman friend?
Truffaut can be relied upon to offer interesting insights about women. When both Nicole and Franca are emotionally upset on the street, drone males catch the scent of their distress as do sharks with blood, and move in with crude suggestions. That frustration alone would justify homicide, I should think. Other things may just be observations yet come across as chauvinistic. Pierre states matter-of-factly that he would prefer it if Nicole wore skirts instead of jeans; she cheerfully complies. No Scotty Ferguson / Judy arguments ensue. By all means, let's not interfere with Pierre's ongoing fantasies.
The narrative linkage that resolves The Soft Skin is its weakest angle. When Pierre takes photos of himself and Nicole, we know what will happen. The ending is an okay way to wrap things up, but still sort of an evasion. The narrative rupture insures that Pierre (and Truffaut) never have to sit down and deal with male irresponsibility. On the purely practical (and biased) level, Pierre is pretty dumb to think he can betray a Latin spouse without serious repercussions. I'd like to see a more holistic The Soft Skin in which Franca Lachenay's side of things is better explained, as that is frankly where our sympathies lie.
Truffaut's chosen ending can't be faulted for realism, as violent tragedies like this certainly occur, often enough with far less motivation. All Franca wanted was for Pierre to for once tell her the truth, but he was too much of a jerk for that. I would like to imagine Franca and Nicole getting together to try and figure out the man they loved. We remember that Pierre is at one point asked why he didn't write a book about Balzac's love life. Well, he doesn't seem to understand love, only desire. The skin-besotted Pierre becomes a victim in a story better suited to Zola.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of The Soft Skin is a flawless scan of this B&W story of adultery on the literary circuit. Raoul Coutard's fine cinematography achieves strong effects without our awareness of lighting setups. It renders Paris, Lisbon and rural France in a way that makes us wish we could visit the same cobblestoned streets or even that gas station out on the highway. The gorgeous Ms. Dorléc is of course the woman with the soft skin. Her legs and face are what Coutard's camera caresses, what men like Pierre sell their souls for. Ms. Benedetti would be equally beautiful if filmed under such flattering lighting. Truffaut succeeds fully in expressing Pierre's obsession with his new female plaything.
The soundtrack has good location work but also some curiously weak sound effects. We're not convinced that an unseen lecture audience is really there. Truffaut makes good use of Georges Delerue's music score, which never merely underscores the action. The most dramatic scenes play by themselves.
Criterion producer Kate Elmore hits the jackpot, extras-wise. The commentary gives us key source insights from Truffaut's co-writer Jean-Louis Richard, with critic Serge Toubiana. It's in French with English subtitles. Kent Jones' video essay is a little less inspiring; it uses elaborate graphics to tell us that assigning artistic inspiration is a shaky practice, and then offers a concrete example linking The Soft Skin with Notorious. The killer extra is Robert Fischer's Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock, a sensationally good 1999 docu that crystallizes everything we thought we knew about the making of the famous Truffaut/Hitchcock interview book. Claude Chabrol covers his and Truffaut's first cautious approaches to their hero director, while Truffaut and Hichcock's daughters describe the directors' mutual admiration. Hitchcock's profoundly appreciated Truffaut's praise. The show brings both famous men much closer.
Molly Haskell's folding liner essay (no more mini booklets for Criterion) neatly captures the film from all sides. It brings up Pierre Lachenay's situation as a celebrity speaker, which puts him in the odd position of spreading cultural wisdom while straining to be civil among fans he really doesn't respect. That's what Pierre seems to lack in his dealings with people - an abiding interest in anybody other than himself.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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