Coming in the wake of The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and Jules and Jim, François Truffaut’s fourth feature, The Soft Skin, has never gotten much respect—even 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 Truffaut’s bid for commercial success—“a curiously crude and hackneyed drama” per New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther—and 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 Delerue’s score, the movie immediately establishes itself as a sort of domestic suspense film: Jean Desailly’s 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 she’s 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 film—low-key yet tense, filled with carefully planted potential “clues” and an undercurrent of anxiety. It’s not noir, but there’s never a moment when it isn’t clear how large a part chance plays in determining the course of not-so-lucky Pierre’s 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 affair’s logistics. The movie’s 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 he’s stashed her and the grand establishment where he’s 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 Deneuve’s 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 Polanski’s exercise in dark absurdism, Cul-de-sac.