Truffaut Channels Hitchcock and Chabrol in ‘The Soft Skin’

This is a cold film where it's clear something is always wrong, but no one can quite piece together what it is.

The Criterion Blu-ray of Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin lends its digital clarity to one of his less appreciated early works, a non-success at the box office and his first “cold film” emotionally. Its theme of adultery wasn’t common in films (even in France), at least for its own sake or from the man’s angle. Jean Renoir, one of Truffaut’s idols, had opened a can of “femme fatale” crime with La Chienne, and the punishing “other woman” melodrama had been its own genre, but Truffaut’s unusual film focuses on the not-so-simple mechanics. It observes every mundane detail of deceit, disappointment, and frustration amid the stolen moments. The result is a convincing analysis of the untenable.

In the first scene, Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) rushes into his apartment, explaining amid clatter that he’s late because a suicide on the line delayed the subway and he’s afraid he won’t get to the airport to catch his plane to Lisbon and a literary conference on “Balzac and Money,” on which he wrote a book. In the camera-swiveling hurry, which introduces his wife (Nelly Benedetti) and young daughter and their neighbors, this sequence is dense with information and implications. Let’s unpack three.

1. Some nameless person, depressed and despairing, has ended his or her life, and its only meaning to Lachenay is inconvenience. Leaving aside the chill whisper of possible foreshadowing that may raise some viewers’ hackles, this shows his self-absorption and callousness, and not only his own.

Later, the neighbor will complain about a traffic accident. The implication is that modern life is a deathtrap. Lots of French people, including existential icon Albert Camus, were dying in traffic. So did Jean-Luc Godard’s first wife, which goes a long way to explaining the fatalities in his movies. In a terrible irony, this film’s female star, Francoise Dorléac, would die in a car accident while rushing to the airport.

2. Lisbon, capital of Portugal, was living more or less under a quasi-fascist dictatorship that emphasized corporate development while keeping free speech and opposition under its thumb. The sleek modern Lisbon we see in the film is an unspoken emblem of this. Again, Lachenay’s lack of concern — at a literary conference apparently emphasizing uncontroversial topics — is an implied undercurrent of his commitment to the ego and its thoughtless comforts.

3. “Balzac and Money” is almost redundant, since, to paraphrase somebody I can’t recall, at the center of Balzac is always a gold coin. His characters are driven by money or the lack of it, and you always know how much is in their pockets. That makes him right for the film’s milieu. A woman at the conference suggests that Lachenay might write a book about Balzac and love, another bit for foreshadowing he doesn’t take seriously.

A later scene involves a film about André Gide, who was most famous (even in a book called The Counterfeiters) for transgressive sex leading to tragedy in the struggle against social constraints. Lachenay says it’s the kind of thing he wouldn’t normally attend, but he uses it as a cover for his own head-over-heels affair with a stewardess (Dorléac) who flatters his sense of celebrity but has no intention of building a life with him.

The film’s ruthless sense of analysis springs from the rhythms of editing to emphasize close-ups on objects and movements in a “materialist” way that resonates with its people and their world. This is partly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, though as critic Kent Jones points out, Truffaut’s choices also emphasize the mundanity of life in a way Hitchcock’s attention to objects doesn’t.

The extras on this Blu-ray discuss Truffaut’s love of Hitchcock. During this time, Truffaut was deeply involved in his project of interviewing the master, and co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard (who appears as the obnoxious drageur in the street) discusses how much they watched Hitchcock’s films while collaborating. In making stylistic comparisons with this film, Claude Chabrol points out a scene that recycles an idea from Notorious, though the effect here is more comic than sinister.

In a TV interview around the film’s release, Truffaut indicates that he doesn’t like these characters and felt committed to his style because he couldn’t change once he’d started. Although that hardly sounds like enthusiasm, this isn’t an impersonal film. Lachenay, whose hectic celebrity easily parallels Truffaut’s, was the name of Truffaut’s good friend, and Truffaut would at one point leave his wife for Dorléac. (That’s what it says online, so it must be true.) Talk about foreshadowing.

Despite or because of its debt to Hitchcock, this should be considered Truffaut’s “Chabrol film”, and it shares much with Louis Malle’s concurrent Chabrol film, The Fire Within. Both have the same crystalline black and white, the same sleek trajectory, the same analytical manner, the same implied critique of French bourgeois culture leading to the same inevitably empty end.

In retrospect, it’s tempting to argue that they (along with Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine and other restless “something’s wrong” movies) were diagnosing a discontent that would boil over in May 1968, but that may be too convenient. Anyway, it’s fun to see how the young French directors influenced each other, and perhaps Agnès Varda’s sublime Happiness  can be read as a distaff answer to Truffaut here. Truffaut and Richard next worked on Fahrenheit 451, which I submit as Truffaut’s “Godard film”.

RATING 8 / 10