The Soft Skin (La peau douce) Review
Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) is a successful academic, married to Franca (Nelly Benedetti) with a young daughter. Flying to Lisbon to give an address on Balzac at a conference, he finds himself in the same hotel as air hostess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) to whom he is immediately attracted...
After Jules et Jim, François Truffaut planned his next film to be an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 1953 classic dystopian SF novel Fahrenheit 451. However, he could not find backing for the project, which was then planned as a French-language production. Also in this period, he met Alfred Hitchcock and conducted the series of interviews which were published in book form in 1966, and while The Soft Skin isn't strictly speaking a suspense thriller, it does show a lot of the Master's influence. La peau douce (translated here as The Soft Skin but also known en anglais as Silken Skin) was an original screenplay by Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard. It was inspired by Truffaut's sighting of a couple who were clearly not married to each other, passionately kissing in a taxi cab: he imagined that he might hear the click of their teeth colliding.
After the exuberance of Jules et Jim, The Soft Skin is a much more sobering experience. The historical setting, with its nods to early cinema, is replaced by a still black and white present day, of hotels and airports. While Truffaut's first three features are clearly a young man's films, intent on showing what he could do with cinema, The Soft Skin, while it ends melodramatically (though this is based on a real incident Truffaut read about in the newspapers) seems a work of a greater maturity, even though its co-writer and director was still only thirty-two at the time. Jules et Jim dealt with a triangle – one woman, two men – and so does this film: one man, two women, but this is a combination much more fraught.
Pierre is a somewhat passive character, one rather out of his depth. The two women in the story reverse the usual roles in stories like this: it is the wife who is the fiery and passionate one, with Franca typed as Latin, brunette and volatile. The other woman, Nicole, is lighter-haired and emotionally cooler. While this is a story written, by two men, from a male point of view – it's not until the final act that Franca effectively becomes a second protagonist – Pierre isn't an especially sympathetic character. This may have affected the film's reception. Premiering at Cannes, it had poor reviews and was a commercial failure, viewers finding the protagonist and the film hard to warm to. Other contemporary reviews were more positive, and the film has attracted a following who regard it as one of Truffaut's best films.
Jean Desailly had a long career of over ninety films, but this is the role he was best known for outside France, other than being second-billed in the censor-baiting 1949 comedy Occupe-toi d'Amélie. He did not like the film, blaming its lack of success for not being offered other leading roles since. Nelly Benedetti made very few films, working mostly on television, but she's convincingly ferocious. Françoise Dorléac was the older sister of Catherine Deneuve, and at this time, aged just twenty-two, was on the brink of international stardom, appearing in this and the hit French comedy The Man from Rio in the same year. She went on to star in Polanski's Cul de Sac and acted alongside her sister and Gene Kelly in The Young Girls of Rochefort before her death in a car crash in 1967, aged just twenty-five.
Two key Truffaut collaborations continue in this film. Georges Delerue contributes a fine score and Raoul Coutard's black and white camerawork is a major asset. Pierre and Franca's home was shot in Truffaut's actual apartment. After three features in Scope, Truffaut shot this film “flat” in the ratio of 1.66:1. Truffaut did say that he had been appalled to see horribly panned and scanned 4:3 16mm prints of his first three features, but it is also the case that a narrower ratio does suit an intimate drama like this. (And also, Hitchcock in his career never shot a film in Scope.) For the rest of his career, with the one exception of 1969's Mississippi Mermaid, Truffaut would shoot his films with spherical lenses, most often in the ratio of 1.66:1. The main character's surname Lachenay is a reference to Truffaut's boyhood friend Robert, who had worked on The Four Hundred Blows. In another in-joke, references to someone called Kanayan name-check the child actor who had appeared in The Four Hundred Blows and Shoot the Pianist. For the second Truffaut film in a row, Sabine Haudepin plays a young girl called Sabine; she would act again for Truffaut as an adult in The Last Metro. Co-screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard has an uncredited role as the man who comes on to Franca in the street towards the end of the film.
After the commercial failure of The Soft Skin, Truffaut did get to make Fahrenheit 451, his first film in colour, but as an English-language production made fraught by Truffaut's lack of command of the language. He followed this with an overt tribute to Hitchcock, The Bride Wore Black and in the same year, 1968, his return to the character of Antoine Doinel, Stolen Kisses, which will be the next in this series of reviews.
The Soft Skin is one of twelve Truffaut films reissued on Blu-ray and DVD by Artificial Eye. It was the former which was received for review as a checkdisc, and comments and affiliate links refer to that edition. For affiliate links for the DVD, go here. What was worthy of a X certificate (sixteens and over) in 1964 now earns a PG, though this is hardly likely to appeal to younger viewers. Rather oddly, once the “Fin” title has appeared and the film faded to black, some of the final reel leader appears on screen. There is however a reason for this: the commentary continues for a short while after the end of the feature.
As mentioned above, The Soft Skin was shot in black and white 35mm in a ratio of 1.66:1, and that is what is presented on this Blu-ray disc. It's a pleasing transfer, with a somewhat darker greyscale than the previous black and white films on disc. Grain looks natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented in LPCM 2.0. The film was post-synchronised, but for most of the film it's hard to tell, though lipsynch does occasionally wander. The sound is clear and well-balanced, and Delerue's score comes over well. There are optional English subtitles available, but these are only available if you play the feature soundtrack. If you select the commentary from the extras menu, the only subtitles then available are those translating the commentary. Other combinations (feature sound with commentary subtitles, or vice versa) are not possible.
That commentary is with Jean-Louis Richard, interviewed in 2000 by Serge Toubiana. This and the other extras have been carried over from earlier DVD editions, but that's just as well as Richard is no longer with us as he died in 2012. This is an informative chat, detailing Richard's long friendship with Truffaut and their working relationship, which extended to writing four films, culminating in the Oscar and BAFTA-winning Day for Night, and later acting in two further films for Truffaut. He also wrote Emmanuelle, but that goes unmentioned here... Oddly, the commentary subtitles refer to Truffaut's final film Vivement dimanche!, which Richard acted in, as its US title Confidentially Yours, rather than its UK one of Finally, Sunday!.
Also on the disc is a brief introduction to the film by Toubiana (4:20) and a trailer (3:41) which trades heavily on Truffaut's reputation by reminding viewers of The Four Hundred Blows and Jules et Jim but somehow doesn't mention Shoot the Pianist.
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