Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Truffaut’s hard truths - The Soft Skin (1964)

Françoise Dorléac
This was Truffaut’s forth feature and a return to the more serious tone of debut 400 Blows, after the ebullience of Jules et Jim. It was an attempt to resent an evenly-balanced take on adultery – giving the story straight for the husband, his wife and his mistress. That it didn’t quite achieve this equality was perhaps inevitable but it is a fascinating and for the time, daring attempt at even-handedness.

Half the audience at the Cannes Festival walked out and the film was a box office flop on release… people were perhaps not ready for a film telling this age-old drama in such a dispassionate and un-sentimental way. And yet, it has more than stood the test of time and is now regarded as one of the director’s strongest works.

Truffaut was ahead if his time in subject matter and style but this film is also founded on three quite remarkable central performances, not least from the boundlessly talented Françoise Dorléac. I’ve fawned over Françoise before and see nothing here to undermine previous impressions – she was an actress of rare grace who demonstrated a raw intelligence and subtlety in her work.

She has an intense but imperfect beauty which can make her more interesting to watch than her serene younger sister (but they are both sublime…). A slight rasp in her voice helps gives her an emotional edge and she always seems fresh and in-the-moment real. Here she’s a young woman in the early stages of discovering her self and sexuality: she grows in stature through the film.

Jean Desailly
She is matched by Jean Desailly who gives a courageous portrayal of sterile, intellectual mid-life crisis. He seems to be in a neutral state, bored with existence, directionless yet driven by obsession: work, women and electric lights. He’s scared of slowing or looking down from where he is for fear of falling: a man looking for distraction at all costs and who cannot really honest with himself. No wonder he finds it difficult to talk to women.

Desailly always said that the film killed his career as what he saw as his unsympathetic character meant he never got leading roles again. But it’s hard to imagine the film without him and his strangely boyish, middle-aged face. He was perfectly cast in terms of his ability to express both the timidity and recklessness of the man running out of chances, making the wrong choices and just… not planning.

Nelly Benedetti
Nelly Benedetti has the hardest job of all, having to act for our sympathy largely on her own, her character in ignorance of the main events until her husband’s infidelity is slowly revealed. She is superb when torn between wanting to save the relationship with the man she still loves and her brave resolution to end it. He may be the intellectual but she has the emotional intelligence and quickly calculates the inevitabilities once their bond is broken.

Your sympathy is directed towards her… and the full extent of his betrayal has yet to be revealed… She is the emotional core of the film and goes from happy to heartbreak in a heartbeat: frighteningly incandescent...the rage of a good woman scorned.

Truffaut had been heavily involved in the meetings with Alfred Hitchcock that would lead to his ground-breaking book, and the influence of the British director is clear throughout this film. There’s lots of rapid cutting and, noticeably more shots than in most Truffaut films and maybe this film is amongst the most deliberate and the most “directed” he made?

Desailly plays Pierre Lachenay, a well-known writer and broadcaster, who starts the film off in a terrific rush to get home and say his farewells to wife Franca (Beneditti) and daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin, a Truffaut regular). Then it’s out to the airport, breaking the speed limit, in order to board a flight to a conference in Lisbon – he is busy and he must be important too. This opening segment is breathless and Lachenay only just makes his flight after his friend takes the cop for the speeding offence.

On board Pierre notices an attractive air hostess, Nicole (Dorleac), and watches her attentively.  He sees her again as he leaves and she arrives at the hotel they’ll both be staying at and after he has given his talk, he bumps into her in the hotel lift… Saddened by his inaction he rings her room number and initiates a meeting. She has recognised him from TV and we can only conclude that this plays a part in piquing her interest…

Their relationship takes off in fits and starts. There as almost surrealist failure to connect as they cannot find the right place for their canoodling in Paris – her apartment is too well “guarded” and she worries for her reputation whilst the kinds of hotels lovers use are too sleazy.

Pierre eventually suggests they go away together to Reims where he is giving an introductory lecture to a film on Andre Gide. But things do not go to plan and he is button holed by the chum who arranged the event and forced to meet and greet the locals. The evening is sold out and Nicole has to wander the streets being hassled by dirty old men…

By the time Pierre frees himself both are so fed up that they head back to Paris… They manage to find a nice romantic hotel in the countryside en route and spend an idyllic day together. But then he phones home and his wife having called Reims the night before knows something’s up.

Back in Paris Pierre and Franca argue and he denies having an affair. She wants to believe him but knows their time is over: they agree to separate. The section detailed the couple’s rapid disentanglement is harrowingly close to the bone as they move further away with every meeting – even their daughter and even sexual love cannot prevent the termination of the marriage.

Pierre plans to move in with Nicole but his back-up plan runs aground when – typically – she has worked out the truth of their situation before him. His disregard for her when they meet in a restaurant shows all the reflex complacency of his marital arrangement and Nicole sees that there can be no long-term future. The basis of their relationship was as lovers and without the third part of the triangle the structure will not hold.

She urges him to tell Franca the whole truth but he dithers and, despite the advice of friends continues to delay calling his wife to try, once more, for reconciliation. But by now, she has found out the whole truth and is set upon her own course of retribution…

The ending was based on an actual event and I won’t give it away here. It was part of Truffaut’s attempt to show real life including his own – famously he used his own apartment as the Lachaney’s home. And, eventually he left his wife for Fanny Ardant.

This is a beautifully controlled film and, even though it may lack that sentimentalism that many viewers still sought, you do feel for all the characters. Like all of us they can be annoying and frustrating but they’re trying to maintain balance and to make the right choices.

I watched the MK2/2 Entertain DVD which has a fascinating commentary from the film’s screen writer, Jean-Louise Richard along with an introduction from Serge Toubiana. Oh, and did I mention it's got Françoise Dorléac in it?

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