Original release: April 20th, 1964
Running time: 113 minutes
Country of origin: France
Original language: French
Director: François Truffaut
Writers: François Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard
Cast: Jean Desailly, Françoise Dorléac, Nelly Benedetti
Merely mentioned and hardly discussed in all the dialogue surrounding François Truffaut’s career and his founding position in the French New Wave, The Soft Skin is quite the anomaly for the French auteur as well as his most apparently tragic film. As specific of an object of desire as its title evokes, it’s a film about one man’s obsession, an all-consuming desire fuelled by the thrill of his pursuit for a young woman.
It’s a film about the anguish in preserving the moment when lust and adventure are at their hottest, never mind how fleeting their intersection usually proves to be (the most despairingly erotic scene composed of close-ups involving hands caressing and fetishizing skin that would make even Luis Buñuel proud). It’s a morose exemplum demonstrating chance encounters that seemingly fulfil a lack are in vain when that lack wasn’t even perceived until the alternative presented itself. For better or for worse, The Soft Skin appears to serve as a cautionary forecast for married men with a wandering eye, a lesson out of the ordinary for Truffaut’s common affiliation with freedom, rewarding curiosity, and a non-traditional take on romance.
Françoise Dorléac (as equally pristine as her older sister, Catherine Deneuve) is Nicole, the young woman with the soft skin, who serves as the unknowing catalyst to the circumstantial unravelling of publisher/lecturer and married man Pierre Lachenay (played with remarkably quiet desperation by Jean Desailly).
They exchange eye contact on an airplane as it lands at his destination with her being the flight attendant who’s asked to stand with him while the press snaps photos to publicize his lecture. As chance would also have it, they share the same hotel, a late night elevator ride, and a telephone call immediately following in which Pierre’s unconfident yet earnest professing of his lust leads the two into the affair.
Their initial illicit encounters are where Truffaut relishes his signature whimsy (aided by Georges Delerue’s always bewitching score), suggesting the joy and hope Pierre is discovering through their union is not a transgression against his family, but one of many facets proving the complexity of human desire and sexuality (exactly the same idea Truffaut canonized with Jules And Jim two years earlier).
As their affair progresses, Pierre’s obsession suffocates him and he ignores the facts: his public profession renders it impossible to keep Nicole under wraps, his wife will inevitably discover the truth (through her accidental finding of a photo claim ticket leading to revealing pictures that incite her revenge), and most importantly, the human being behind the softness will ultimately leave him after realizing she’s only an empty beacon of amusement.
Depending on whos watchng this story unfold, and their own personal perceptions of fidelity, the final scene in which Pierre is murdered will either serve as the satisfying coup de grâce he had coming, or it will seem an unfortunate fate for a mostly good man that could’ve been avoided if he wasn’t conditioned to lie from years of marriage to an irrational wife.
If there’s one virtue Truffaut consistently upholds throughout his work, it’s the importance of truth, a virtue when not followed reveals wilful (self)deception to be the source of his characters’ pain and struggle. Specifically within the multi-film saga of Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical character Antoine Doinel, lying to his parents and instructors in his adolescence creates more than enough trouble in The 400 Blows (as well as the lies of his adulterous mother trying to keep her own affair secret).
After marrying and becoming a father in Bed And Board, Antoine Doinel finds himself at the same mid-life juncture as Pierre Lachenay, yet Antoine more readily acknowledges his marital transgression than Pierre does, who instead seals his fate through complete denial. In a heated argument, the window of opportunity to confirm his wife’s suspicions does present itself, and it could have very well saved his life if he had seized it.
I suspect why most critical discussion of François Truffaut overlooks The Soft Skin is its somewhat didactic insistence on punishing its protagonist for impulses typically celebrated by the director. It’s not an easy fit, especially on the heels of something as mildly progressive and sex-positive as Jules And Jim, a film explicitly about allowing the sexual attraction between a woman and her two male friends to flourish and forge an alternative to a monogamous union.
This is not to say Truffaut’s fourth feature doesn’t possess some of his usual themes, namely sexual playfulness and the self-inflicted predicament of adulterous middle-aged men. This film is, in fact, much like a catastrophic amalgam made from the romantic possibility in Jules And Jim, the temptation of marital affair in Bed And Board, and even the feminist revenge of the scorned woman in The Bride Wore Black. Yet what is distinctly its own (and what also contributes to its difficult categorization), is the film’s fatalistic tone.
It stubbornly intends for all of its not-so-admirable hero’s efforts to only bring about his demise. For the filmmaker deemed the most light-hearted and accessible crest to the frequently intellectual and pessimistic New Wave movement, Truffaut has momentarily identified with his peers on this one.
The Soft Skin doesn’t leave behind the sweet, effervescent aftertaste from most of his fun romps, but instead leaves a feeling of foolishness and guilt for letting yourself get carried away by the furtive glances of a blonde stewardess.
Joaquin Villalobos is a burgeoning critic, video editor, screenwriter, and lover of all things film residing in Denver, Colorado. His earliest memory of the cinema is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio at the age of three, an experience sealing his interest in storytelling through imagery. He achieved a Bachelor of Fine Arts at CU Boulder where his work on 16mm and digital video garnered several awards and exhibitions.
His writings on film continue to strengthen his appreciation and understanding of it as both art and commerce. His favorite directors include Pedro Almodóvar, Jean-Pierre Melville, Michael Powell, and Paul Thomas Anderson. More of Joaquin's work can be found at his website, Seen Said and you can follow him on Twitter @SeenSaid.