The Soft Skin (1964)
Directed by François Truffaut
An "antipoetic" (per Truffaut) response to the director's Jules and Jim, this extramarital tragedy in the key of thriller is no less stylish. Raoul Coutard's camera is still agile—panning, tracking, always on the move—but now it's neurotic, and Claudine Bouché and Truffaut's fast-cut editing expressly avoids lyricism. Like the rest of the modern world, in which passionate connection proves impossible, the film can't "stay quietly in one room." That's André Gide, diagnosing man's misfortune, quoted to a sold-out crowd in Reims by rockstar lit critic Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly). At another lecture, aides scramble to find extra chairs to seat the throngs of discourse-lovers. Pierre drives a Citroën DS so pretty one wonders if they co-sponsored the production. The scholar's fresh takes on Balzac, Stendhal, et al. have made him a celebrity—not necessarily unrealistic for France in the mid-60s.
Pierre is not sexually attractive (his chin and neck are undifferentiated, the gaze sort of gopherish), but his star status and careful daily toilette make him appealing to women. He is married to the dark, mercurial Franca (Nelly Benedetti), but begins cheating on her with a light stewardess beauty, Nicole (Françoise Dorléac). This is unusual behavior for him, and he proceeds clumsily at first, but he is unable to resist the sexually available and well-read younger woman. The lissome and vivacious Dorléac, the older sister of Catherine Deneuve (currently being celebrated at BAM), has a charisma that alone explains Pierre's life-jeopardizing transgressions.
Prime influence Hitchcock was the master of showing the sheer effort of murder. Truffaut here dramatizes the irritating negotiations and banal annoyances that are often the real affair killers. In Reims, Nicole waits for Pierre to meet her after his lecture, but he can't shake the event's clingy host, who wants to share beers and a ride back to Paris, and won't shut up about shoelaces. Pierre is too spinelessly discreet to admit he has a woman waiting, and he's especially mortified when he sees an impatient Nicole on the street being propositioned.
Truffaut is fascinated by the downsides and disappointments of affairs, and he devotes much time to wife Franca's angry suspicion, but he's not deaf to the pleasures. In the film's most romantic sequence of escapist bliss, Pierre and Nicole lie on a country hotel bed, he caressing her leg and slowly peeling down a nylon stocking. It's an affair as an accrual of details and a scoresheet of wins and losses, most too tiny for the players to notice. The Soft Skin anticipates Truffaut's exceptional The Man Who Loved Women (1977), also concerned with the melancholy that can accompany the sex pursuit. This film's sadness was there in Jules and Jim, but here it's inexorable.
March 11-17 at Film Forum