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The Soft Skin

The Soft Skin(1964)

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teaser The Soft Skin (1964)

A man and woman kissing in a taxi, their teeth clicking; a woman's legs in silk stockings, crossing and uncrossing, the sound of stockings rubbing against one another. Those two erotic fantasies sparked Franois Truffaut's imagination, as did a newspaper clipping about a real-life crime of passion. From these beginnings, Truffaut hoped to fashion his fourth feature film, The Soft Skin (La Peau douce, 1964), into "a truly modern love story, that takes place in planes, elevators, and has all the harassments of modern life." He predicted it would be "indecent, completely shameless, rather sad, but very simple." It is all that, and more: moving, farcical, sensual, lyrical and shocking.

While preparing to make his first (and, as it turns out, only) big-budget, international film in English, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Truffaut encountered the delays such a complex undertaking usually entails. So he busied himself with other projects. One was a book of interviews with his idol Alfred Hitchcock, which was eventually published in both French and English. Another was The Soft Skin, which shows Hitchcock's influence on Truffaut, and Truffaut's own preoccupation with the romantic triangle.

Jean Desailly plays Pierre, a prominent literary scholar, writer and editor married to Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and ensconced in comfortable, if somewhat dull domesticity. On a lecture trip, the middle-aged Pierre has a one-night stand with young flight attendant Nicole (Franoise Dorlac) that turns into a full-blown affair and has disastrous consequences. The Hitchcock influence can be seen in the purely visual storytelling and the intricate editing, particularly in two extended sequences, one at the beginning of the film and the other at the end, the latter building with unbearable Hitchcockian tension.

As with many of Truffaut's films, there is an autobiographical element as well. Married since 1957 and the father of two young girls, Truffaut had been compulsively unfaithful from the beginning of his marriage. The couple had separated once before, and he was already romantically involved with Dorlac, the older sister of Catherine Deneuve. Incidents in The Soft Skin, such as Pierre taking Nicole with him on a business trip and then abandoning her in the hotel, were based on actual incidents in Truffaut's own life. The scenes of marital strife were even filmed in Truffaut's Paris apartment. Shortly after shooting ended on the film, he and his wife Madeleine separated. They divorced the following year, but remained close friends for the rest of Truffaut's life. His affair with Dorlac was short-lived, but their friendship also lasted until her untimely death in a car accident in 1967.

The Soft Skin was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Truffaut's first appearance at the festival since winning the best director award for his debut feature, The 400 Blows in 1959. But reaction to the Cannes screenings was, Truffaut wrote to a friend, "a complete fiasco." Italian and Spanish distributors withdrew their offers, and reviews in the French press were scathing, calling the film "boring," and deploring a "distressing Truffaut." Compared to the universally praised Jules and Jim (1962) with its complex and elegant romantic triangle, critics found The Soft Skin's triangle conventional, even banal. American critics were also dismissive. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times likened the film to the soapy movie versions of novels by Fannie Hurst, such as Back Street (1961) and Imitation of Life (1959): "It's a curiously crude and hackneyed drama to come from Mr. Truffaut, but his way of using his actors and working his camera is up to his style." The Variety critic also praised Truffaut's directing but disliked his subject and story: "One of the flaws in the pic is that the three rather colorless people suddenly do unusual things without any sort of preparation. The film's almost classic treatment makes them jolting rather than dramatically right." But The Soft Skin was a hit in the Scandinavian countries, as well as in Germany, England, Canada and Japan. And even though the film's reception was a disappointment, Truffaut treasured the few positive comments, such as Michel Mardore's in Lui magazine, which called The Soft Skin "a beautiful film, reactionary and moral," and a note from his New Wave comrade Jean-Luc Godard: "I saw your film again on the big screen of the Olympe. It was even bigger than the screen."

Over the years, audiences and critics have rediscovered and re-evaluated The Soft Skin, and many now agree with the handful of critics who hailed it as a masterpiece in 1964. In 2011, Tim Robey of London's Daily Telegraph, wrote, "It's stunningly assured, suspenseful, emotionally truthful and tough." J. Hoberman of the Village Voice called it "one of Truffaut's best....The Soft Skin naturalizes New Wave technique; its tonal shifts and disjunctive montage are relatively subtle." And Philip French of the Guardian agreed, calling it "The film in which Truffaut cast off the showy trappings associated with the first years of the Nouvelle Vague and became a truly mature film-maker."

Director: Franois Truffaut
Producer: Antonio da Cunha Telles
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editing: Claudine Bouch
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Jean Desailly (Pierre Lachenay), Franoise Dorlac (Nicole Chomette), Nelly Benedetti (Franca Lachenay), Daniel Ceccaldi (Clment), Jean Lanier (Michel), Paule Emanuele (Odile), Sabine Haudepin (Sabine), Laurence Badie (Ingrid).

by Margarita Landazuri

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