Truffaut's Unjustly Neglected The Soft Skin Ripe for Reappraisal
Coming in the wake of The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and Jules and Jim, François Truffauts fourth feature, The Soft Skin, has never gotten much respecteven though many people (myself included) regard it as one of his best. Poorly received when it premiered at Cannes in 1964, the movie was deemed Truffauts bid for commercial successa curiously crude and hackneyed drama per New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowtherand even as the end of the New Wave.
Actually, The Soft Skin naturalizes New Wave technique; its tonal shifts and disjunctive montage are relatively subtle. Opening with a moody blast of Georges Delerues score, the movie immediately establishes itself as a sort of domestic suspense film: Jean Desaillys lit-crit superstar Pierre rushing from the bosom of his family to Orly Airport to barely catch a plane to Lisbon, where he is to give a lecture on Balzac. En route, he meets a beautiful flight attendant, Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), half his age and fascinated by French literature as well.
The excitement of the hook-up is palpable; when, perhaps on a whim, Nicole signals to Pierre that shes interested in more than a one-night stand, he becomes all but unhinged. The Soft Skin is a movie about the agony and ecstasy of an extramarital affair. Truffaut treats it like a crime filmlow-key yet tense, filled with carefully planted potential clues and an undercurrent of anxiety. Its not noir, but theres never a moment when it isnt clear how large a part chance plays in determining the course of not-so-lucky Pierres life.
The critic may be a proper bourgeois but, however fastidiously groomed, it soon becomes obvious that he lacks the calculated sangfroid or spontaneous je ne sais quoi or plain whatever to handle the affairs logistics. The movies central section is almost too nightmarish to be funny as Pierre orchestrates a weekend getaway to Reims, obliged to conceal his young mistress from the tiresome local literati as he frantically shuttles back and forth between the small hotel where hes stashed her and the grand establishment where hes being feted.
As a presence, Desailly is overmatched by both the sultry, impulsive Nelly Benedetti, who plays his wife, and the high-flying, modern Dorléac. Catherine Deneuves equally stunning older sister (but warmer and saucier), Dorléac died in a car accident three years later; perhaps someone will revive her other notable movies, the amiable thriller That Man From Rio, in which she appears opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo, and particularly Roman Polanskis exercise in dark absurdism, Cul-de-sac.
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