Written by Mat Brewster
According to the Internet Movie Database, François Truffaut’s fourth film, The Soft Skin, was booed at its showing at the Cannes Film Festival. Upon watching it, I can understand why. Its plot is very basic and ends abruptly, oddly and seemingly out of sync with the rest of the film. It’s a staid, overly serious film that contains none of the stark realism of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the kinetic artistry of Shoot the Piano Player, or the joie de vivre of Jules and Jim. And yet it is a remarkable film in its own right, demonstrating Truffaut’s masterful use of technique and his auteur’s understanding of the art of filmmaking.
Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) is a well-known writer and editor of a literary magazine who often appears on television and at lectures across Europe. He’s also seems to be a happy husband and father. On a flight to Lisbon he notices an attractive stewardess, Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), who winds up staying in the same hotel as he. There they flirt, have dinner, and share a torrid night together. That encounter carries over into Paris where Pierre begins sneaking out on his wife to meet with her, they spend a weekend in Reims, and fall in love. Then the wife finds out, they split, Pierre proposes to Nicole, and things end badly.
I’d warn of spoilers in that plot description except that this story has been done so many times as to render it too basic to spoil anything and the ending is so telegraphed beforehand that you’d have to really not be paying attention to be surprised. But within this very basic, and rather mundane story, Truffaut constructs these magnificent scenes that when put together makes this really wonderful film.
For example, there is a small scene towards the end of the film – the wife has discovered the affair and kicked Pierre out. He becomes wrecked with guilt. At a restaurant he tells his friends that he must have her back, that he will call her immediately, apologize, and beg her to take him in. He gets up only to find someone, a beautiful woman, is using the pay phone. As he waits his turn, the camera catches him longingly gazing at this woman and we understand that while he is waiting to lay himself prostrate to his wife he’s fantasizing about what it would be like to be with this stranger.
In another scene Truffaut uses light switches to give insight into the characters emotional states. Pierre has just had a brief encounter with Nicole in the hotel elevator. He comes into his room alight with passion, but does not know what to do with it. He enters his room, turns on the light and then pauses. The light goes off and he opens the door to dash to her room only to get nervous and turn the light on again. He calls her on the telephone and sets up a date. Afterwards, the two make it back to her room where she turns on the light as if to welcome a guest for a nightcap. He turns it off and kisses her knowing full well what their intentions are. All of this is directed masterfully letting us inside the characters psyche without overdoing it.
The three main actors, Desailly, Dorléac, and Nelly Benedetti, who plays the wife, all do a wonderful job portraying characters who are not particularly likable and are stuck in a plot that never does a whole lot. Georges Delerue wonderful soundtrack deserves a great deal of credit as well.
In the latter third of the movie it gets a bit bogged down in the machinations of its own plot, and its shocking conclusion is neither shocking nor particularly interesting. Yet what comes before is so wonderful made these flaws are easily forgiven.
The Soft Skin is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.67:1, encoded with MPEG-4 with a 1080p transfer on a newly printed Criterion Blu-ray. It is a lovely looking film. Shot gloriously in black and white, the video looks quite wonderful. The sharpness levels have obviously been elevated a little for the darker scenes but it still looks very warm and pleasing. I noticed no stains, debris, or other blemishes in the film. It’s perhaps not quite good enough to make it a show-off transfer but it’s still quite good.
The audio is likewise quite good. This is a dialog-heavy film and that comes in crisp and clear. As does the wonderful score.
Extras include “The Complexity of Influence” in which critic Kent Jones discusses the influence of Alfred Hitchcock on Truffaut in general and The Soft Skin in particular. Speaking of Hitchcock, “Monsieur Truffaut Meets Mr. Hitchcock” is a 30-minute documentary that includes archival interviews with various folks close to both directors and the relationship they formed while Truffaut was writing his famous book on Hitchcock. Also included is a short clip from the French television series Cineastes de notre in which Truffaut discusses several scenes from The Soft Skin. An audio commentary by Jean-Louis Richard discusses his own relationship with Truffaut, his influences to this film, Hitchcock’s influence on the film amongst many other things. Lastly, there is an essay by Molly Haskell in the liner notes.
Certainly The Soft Skin is not the place to begin The New Wave, or even Truffaut’s filmography. It will always and rightfully be overshadowed by The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim, but for those looking to dig a little deeper it is a grand film to study and enjoy.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00R244D6O]