Soft Skin, The (1964)

Review #1,300

Director:  Francois Truffaut
Cast:  Jean Desailly, Françoise Dorléac, Nelly Benedetti
Plot:  Pierre is a well-known publisher and lecturer, married with Franca and father of Sabine, around ten.  He meets an air hostess, Nicole.  They start a love affair, which Pierre is hiding, but he cannot stand staying away from her.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  113min
Rating:  Not rated.  Likely to be PG13 for mature themes.
International Sales:  MK2

Quite the underseen and rarely talked about work of Francois Truffaut, this fourth feature coming after the highs of such French New Wave classics as The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962) is a drama about an affair between a family man, Pierre, who is a famous writer, and a young air stewardess, Nicole, whom he had the pleasure to meet during a flight to Lisbon to give a lecture. 

While most movies about adultery tend to follow certain narrative beats and attempt to induce suspense out of the fear of exposure, The Soft Skin takes it to another level by utilizing editing techniques like quick cuts and close-ups, and the use of light and darkness—look at how Truffaut plays with light to signal elation, eroticism or guilt in different interior scenes—to create tension. 

Truffaut's 'Hitchcockian' influences, which he would be ready to admit, are peppered throughout the film.  Scenes in cars have that odd, unsettling feeling that reminds us of similar scenes in Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).  There is also a tendency to consciously develop a suspense-thriller mode of address, despite The Soft Skin being largely dramatic.  This is particularly evident in the climax as a time-sensitive scenario escalates with serious consequences.

Jean Desailly gives a fine performance as the man whose desire got the better of him.  However, Pierre is not just someone who is only characterized by lust; in fact, he is a complex person who can rationalize and think.  He earns our sympathy not because we feel sorry for his situation, but rather he is a fairly reasonable man whose ultimate downfall comes from indiscretion and indecision. 

Playing opposite Desailly is Francoise Dorleac, who was tragically killed in an accident three years after the film's release.  Her performance is alluring and central to how Pierre is continually shaped through the film.

The Soft Skin is sensual, precise and tightly-wrought.  The craft is impeccable and for a film that is more than fifty years old, it feels immediate and entertaining.  It is also one of Truffaut's most tonally unpredictable films, shifting from romance to drama to suspense and to thriller modes effortlessly.  This is a joy to see, restored lovingly by The Criterion Collection.

Verdict:  Truffaut’s ‘Hitchcockian’ influences are apparent in this underrated adultery drama that is sensual, precise and tightly-wrought.  


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