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The Soft Skin  
Francois Truffaut
1964 || 113 mins

Pierre Lacheney (Jean Desailly) is a renowned academic and publisher who lives in Paris with his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and their daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin). On a trip to Lisbon, where he is to give a lecture on Balzac, he meets and spends the night with a young air stewardess Nicole (Francoise Dorléac). Back in Paris, they begin a clandestine affair. Eager to spend a few days alone with Nicole, Pierre takes her with him to the town of Reims, where he has been asked to introduce a film about André Gide. While there, he takes photos of Nicole and himself together.

On his return, Pierre is confronted by his wife, who has discovered he left Reims early and suspects he was with a girl. Pierre denies the accusation, blaming his absence on a need for time alone, but the couple agree to separate. Free to begin a new life, Pierre asks Nicole to marry him, but now she has second thoughts and turns him down.  Meanwhile, Franca has discovered the photographs of her husband and Nicole together and, not knowing the affair is over, is determined to get her revenge…


see also articles on:
Top 10 Truffaut Movies || Francois Truffaut Profile|| French New Wave History || French New Wave Film Guide

Frustrated by delays and set backs in his quest to bring Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451 to the big screen, Francois Truffaut decided to embark on a new production which he could make in the meantime. The screenplay for La Peau douce (The Soft Skin) was written in collaboration with Jean-Louis Richard in less than a month. The inspiration, according to Truffaut, was an image seen or imagined a few years earlier: “A woman and a man, it’s 7.30 p.m. and they’re on their way home to dinner. Not married to each other but to other people by whom they have children. A horrendously carnal kiss in a taxi, in a city.” With his instinct for detail, Truffaut goes on to add that “that was the starting point, an image and a sound, because during the kiss, we would hear the couple’s teeth knocking.” The screenplay was also based on a series of stories and a few remembered autobiographical details. “I work from life,” Truffaut once said. “By life I mean 20% autobiography, 20% newspaper stories, 20% friend’s lives and the remainder, roughly 40%, is fictional.”

The theme of the film is adultery, a subject about which Truffaut had considerable experience, having had a number of affairs while married to his first wife Madeleine, the mother of his two daughters. Did he see himself in the character of Pierre, a famous figure with an instinct for secrecy and a weakness for beautiful women? If so, he must have had a dim view of his own character in this regard, for Pierre is a weak man whose indecision drives Nicole away and frustrates those in the audience who might otherwise feel some sympathy for his dilemma. When he finally does act, it’s too late. “Everytime he encounters a problem,” said Truffaut “He chooses the worst possible solution.” Experienced stage actor Jean Desailly is perfect as the charming but aloof Pierre, more at home in the world of classic literature than the hectic whirl of 1960s Paris. By contrast, his wife, played by Nelly Benedetti, is a person of integrity, with a tendency to see things in black and white and an unwillingness to accept compromise. The alluring Nicole played by Francois Dorleac occupies the third corner of the triangle. In perhaps the finest performance of her tragically short career (she died in a car accident in 1967 at the age of 25), Dorleac brings a captivating sensitivity to her character. It is no wonder that Pierre finds her so fascinating; she is at once elegant, vulnerable, lively and mysterious. At first the actress was resistant to playing the part, finding the character too harsh, but Truffaut persuaded her to put more of herself into the role. “Nicole ended up resembling me, Francois made her talk like me, tell stories that happened to me with slight changes. This explains why today I’m not so sure about not liking her anymore,” she explained when the film opened.

In August 1962, Truffaut had spent a week in Los Angeles interviewing Alfred Hitchcock about his life and career. Prior to the interview he had watched and re-watched the director’s entire oeuvre. La Peau douce shows the full extent to which his immersion in Hitchcock’s work had influenced his own cinematic style. Everyday events in the story, such as a car journey to the airport, or a ride in an elevator, are charged with nail-biting suspense. The sense of pressing urgency, which this conveys, sets the tone for the fraught narrative about to unfold. There never seems enough time for Pierre to spend with Nicole or to talk things over with his wife. Like Hitchcock, Truffaut has learnt the trick of conveying inner states through visual means. One such example is the scene in which Pierre walks down the hotel corridor after encountering Nicole in the elevator, and gazes down at the shoes placed outside every door – a single man’s, then a woman’s, then a man and woman’s together. Entering his hotel room, he turns the lights down low, phones Nicole, and asks her to meet him for a drink. Nicole reminds him of the lateness of the hour and declines. Pierre apologises and politely hangs up. Moments later, Nicole calls him back and agrees to meet him the following afternoon. Elated, Pierre walks around the room, flipping on all the lights, before lying down on the bed with his hands behind his head, clearly very pleased with himself.

The film was selected for official competition at Cannes in 1964. The critics slammed it as cold, cynical and unrealistic. Released in the aftermath of the festival it also failed at the box office. Truffaut was hurt but understood that the movie was a difficult proposition: insufficiently sentimental for the mass audience, who could not be expected to sympathise with Pierre. Viewed now, La Peau douce can be seen as one of the director’s most consistent achievements. Rarely has a love affair been rendered with such clarity and eye for detail, and the consequences of betrayal been so accurately portrayed. For that reason and for the wonderful performances by the three leads, La Peau douce deserves to take its place amongst Truffaut’s finest works.

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