Thursday, November 12, 2009
The Soft Skin
This is an older piece that I wrote for Senses of Cinema in March 2004. François Truffaut's train left the tracks with this film, with his use of a completely preposterous melodramatic ending. In fact, the last scene of the film is a good illustration of what "melodrama" is - an intrusion of unreality, artificiality, into an otherwise subtle and illuminating tale of marital infidelity.
La Peau Douce
François Truffaut had been a brilliant – and often acerbic - critic of French cinema before he became a director. He went to great lengths demolishing the received wisdom of what constituted classic French cinema, as well as doing his best to end the careers of a number of people otherwise ensconced as its classicists.(1) Ironically, Truffaut often criticised French films for being bland remakes of Hollywood films.(2) Truffaut himself turned to American film and literature for many of his projects in the 1960s, including Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), The Bride Wore Black (1967) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969).
The subject of La Peau douce is adultery and its difficulties: for the husband who deceives his wife; for the wife who is, at first, unknowingly deceived; and for the other woman who is attracted to the married man but only as long as he remains married.(3) Pierre Lachenay is a celebrated man of letters, with a loving wife and daughter. On a trip to Portugal, he meets a young air hostess, Nicole, and begins an impromptu affair with her. His busy schedule of lectures on Balzac make it necessary for him to be away from home, creating convenient excuses for the two to be together. Gradually, however, Pierre's feelings for the girl develop beyond infatuation and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to hide the affair from his wife. It is out of this 'difficulty' that the film derives its dramatic impetus. At the last, and in a final twist, Nicole decides that she doesn't belong in Pierre's world, but it is already too late for Pierre.
The setting is a world of timetables, schedules to be followed, and signs and signals regulating the frenetic ebb and flow of people who are no less part of the machine – as long as they observe the rules. Within the confines of this mechanism, they are still permitted some freedom of movement. But, as sure as Fate, once they attempt to circumvent the unwritten but universally accepted laws governing their lives, which could alter the grand design of which they are the minutest parts, invisible forces swiftly intervene to restore order – even if order can only be restored by violence.(4)
All of this could be construed as a genuine 'plot', were it not for Truffaut's obvious concern for his characters. Certainly, the film has some of the aspects of a suspense story, but it is far too subtle to be categorised as such. Without perhaps intending to, Truffaut's film exposes the hollowness of Hitchcock's formulae by concentrating not on the devices of suspense (ponderous music, an emphasis on 'clues') but on the characters' foibles and their subjection to the terrible randomness of chance.
Truffaut's film is so splendidly alive with observed details, translating the inner workings of Pierre's fumbling psyche into visual terms. To single out one memorable example: after his first encounter with Nicole in the elevator, Pierre walks down the hotel hallway, gazing down at the shoes placed outside every door – a man's here, a woman's there, or, tantalizingly, a man and a woman's side by side. On entering his room, Pierre automatically turns on the light in the foyer. Then he turns it off. Emboldened, he enters his bedroom and sits on the bed. He turns on the lamp beside it, phones Nicole's room and asks her to meet him for a drink. Nicole reminds him of the lateness of the hour and demurs. Pierre apologises and politely hangs up. Moments later, Nicole calls him back and agrees to meet him the following afternoon. Now that the staged ambience of his darkened room is superfluous, Pierre walks around his suite flipping on all the lights before lying down on his bed.
Jean Desailly is perfect as the fumbling husband.(5) Truffaut is gentle enough in his portrayal to show us Pierre's genuine enthusiasm for literature.(6) Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve's sister, is captivating as Nicole, exhibiting many of the qualities in her performance – sensuality, and a remarkable range of emotions – that were considered lacking in her sister.(7) And Nelly Benedetti is so convincing as the betrayed wife, and so tragically passionate by turns, that one wonders what could've driven Pierre to stray in the first place. The spareness and delicacy of Raoul Coutard's cinematography are matched by Georges Delerue's music, used by Truffaut with extreme care and precision – never blatant or over-emphatic.
La Peau douce was first shown at Cannes in 1964. Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg received all the attention, winning both the Prix Louis Delluc and the Palme d'Or. Truffaut's film is no less dazzling, but it represented a radical departure for the director. After the daring stylistic accomplishments of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules et Jim, La Peau douce at first seemed a step back for Truffaut, a step all the way back to the films of Henri-Georges Clouzot or Henri Cayatte. That Truffaut had been busy with his Hitchcock book at the time is considered to be one explanation for this change in style – perhaps also because of the film's concentration on the coolly functional details of the world which the characters inhabit rather complacently.(8) The difference is that Truffaut's concentration is never as emotionless or clinical as Hitchcock's. It is manifestly clear in frame after frame of this carefully wrought film that Truffaut cares about his characters, even as the mechanised world they inhabit conspires to destroy them. It makes watching Pierre's fall all the more fascinating and sad.
(1) Sometimes quite unfairly. Truffaut nearly ended the careers of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, until Bertrand Tavernier coaxed them out of retirement in the early 1970s.
(2) “Ironically” if only because Hollywood has made a practice of re-making popular French films since at least the 1930s.
(3) One of Truffaut's most brilliant insights in this film is to show how content the other woman is with her otherness – and how quickly she loses interest in the man who seeks to ruin the liberty of their arrangement by offering to desert his wife.
(4) Notice the beatific smile on the wife's face in the closing freeze-frame.
(5) Though it is hard to imagine that Desailly was cast as Chéri in Pierre Billon's 1950 film adaptation of Colette's novel.
(6) Truffaut himself was a voracious reader. Remember Antoine Doinel making a shrine to Balzac in The 400 Blows (1959).
(7) Dorléac's career was, of course, cut short by her death in a road accident in 1967.
(8) Truffaut's book was first published in 1967. See François Truffaut, Hitchcock, ed. Helen G. Scott, rev. ed. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985.