Monday, August 26, 2019

Hitchcockian: François Truffaut 's The Soft Skin (1964)

 ...For the Vive la France Blogathon...


35 years after his death in 1984, François Truffaut is best known as the most successful of the youthful filmmakers to emerge from the nouvelle vague (New Wave) movement that swept French cinema in the late 1950s. But before he would write and direct his first full-length feature in 1959, Truffaut would make his name as an enfant terrible critic at the influential post-war film journal Cahiers du cinema (Notebooks on Cinema). It was Truffaut who authored a famous/infamous January 1954 article, an impassioned and polemic piece, that advanced the “auteur theory.”  This theory maintains that auteur films reflect the filmmaker’s personal/artistic vision and possess an identifiable style along with recurring themes and motifs. Alfred Hitchcock, a director revered by Cahiers’ young critics, personified the auteur concept and Truffaut was one especially smitten with his work. He would author 27 articles on Hitchcock over the course of the 1950s.

French poster for The 400 Blows (1959)
But Truffaut wanted to do more than write about movies and their makers, he wanted to make them himself. His first feature-length film would come with The 400 Blows (1959), an intensely personal film that portrays circumstances and incidents from his own adolescence. Episodic and buoyant with energy and spontaneity, The 400 Blows would bring Truffaut the Best Director award at Cannes as well as an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay. With this first feature, 27-year-old François Truffaut’s filmmaking career was launched – and so was the French New Wave. Next came Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Based on a pulp novel by David Goodis (Dark Passage), it would be Truffaut’s improvisational, near-zany take on film noir. Truffaut described the film as “a grab bag” “shot without any criteria,” and it seems in retrospect to be his most freewheeling venture. By turns lighthearted, exciting and sad, it recounts the tale of a pianist who finds himself in a dire predicament involving gangsters. Following the film’s successful debut, Truffaut undertook a project he’d been working on for years, the adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché's novel Jules and Jim. The story is set during the World War I era and charts an unconventional romantic triangle involving two close friends and the beautiful, capricious woman both men love. An entrancing mix of whimsy, tenderness and tragedy, it stars Jeanne Moreau in one of the great performances of her early stardom. These first three films established Truffaut at the forefront of French cinema, but two years would pass before his fourth feature would come.

A few months after Jules and Jim’s release early in 1962, Truffaut contacted Alfred Hitchcock and began arrangements for their now world-famous interviews. These conversations would take place at Universal Studios over eight days and countless hours during the summer of 1962, and the two men would discuss in depth each of Hitchcock’s films as well as his cinematic technique and philosophy. Truffaut would have the recordings of their talks transcribed and, once edited, Hitchcock/Truffaut would be published in 1966.

Truffaut and Hitchcock, 1962

As he set out to make his fourth film, The Soft Skin (1964), Truffaut declared that it would be, “…indecent, completely shameless, rather sad, but very simple.” The idea for the plot  would come to him in various forms, including a very recent local news story, “the Nicole Gérard affair,” in which a 41-year-old married woman had taken public revenge on her unfaithful husband. Another inspiration came with a brief incident Truffaut had observed by chance, the sight of a couple kissing in the back seat of a taxi and the sound of their teeth clinking as they kissed. He assumed, taking in the passion of the kiss, that this had to be an adulterous moment. Further material must also have come from his own life; Truffaut was notoriously and incessantly unfaithful to his wife and they had already separated once because of it by the time he began The Soft Skin.

Jean Desailly and Nelly Benedetti
The storyline concerns middle-aged Pierre (Jean Desailly), a celebrated “literary lion” who is the editor of an academic journal and a sought-after authority on Balzac. Pierre lives in Paris with his stay-at-home wife, Franca (Nelly Benedetti), and their young daughter. On a trip to Lisbon, where he will give a talk to a sold-out crowd on “Balzac and Money,” he has a chance encounter with beautiful young flight attendant, Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), that leads to an intense affair. As Truffaut had planned, the story is simple. But the tale that plays out onscreen is a bit more intricate.

Truffaut had pointed out to Hitchcock the significance of the elements of fear, sex and death in his films. These elements would also play a prominent role in The Soft Skin. Despite being a distinguished national figure, Pierre is an anxious, timid man. The film opens with scenes of him hurrying to catch a plane to Lisbon, fearful that he will miss his flight. As he rushes in traffic to Orly, Claudine Bouché’s editing and Georges Delerue’s score accentuate the degree of Pierre’s agitation, also setting an ongoing undertone of tension. And though Pierre is a subdued character, his wife is a womanly woman, a passionate woman, and it is clear that their marriage is still sexually alive. Pierre’s powerful attraction to and obsession with Nicole imply his underlying carnal nature. And death…well, that will come soon enough.

Françoise Dorléac
Unlike Truffaut’s earlier work, this film’s narrative is entirely linear. Neither does The Soft Skin have the exuberance or improvisational spirit associated with the first three films. Hitchcock’s stylistic influence can be detected in the film’s visuals, notably the editing, but another aspect that seems distinctly “Hitchcockian” is its cool, detached tone. And there is the obvious contrast between Pierre’s emotionally volatile brunette wife and his poised, near-blonde mistress (Dorléac, who would lighten her hair dramatically for Billion Dollar Brain (1967), might have been an enchanting “Hitchcock blonde” had she lived).

As with Truffaut’s previous films, The Soft Skin was shot in black and white and on location. In fact, keeping it personal, he used his own apartment for the scenes set in Pierre and Franca’s home. And as was his way, and in contrast to Hitchcock, he would present his primary characters evenhandedly. Pierre is depicted as neither hero nor villain, he isn’t especially sympathetic or unsympathetic. He is a man – not unlike Truffaut himself – who, in this case, has managed to make a mess of his life without realizing it until it’s too late – which he also doesn’t realize.

From its frenetic opening, through its varied domestic and illicit interludes to its climactic finale, The Soft Skin moves deliberately and persistently toward its denouement. In the film’s final shot Nelly Benedetti, as Franca, sits in a café, her eyes in a fixed stare and her mouth frozen in a small, enigmatic half-smile. The expression is hard to determine but for a fraction of a second we seem to recognize something and, with a start, recall our last glimpse of Norman Bates in Psycho.

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The Soft Skin would be the first of four Truffaut “thrillers” – including Fahrenheit 451 (1966), The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969) – that have come to be known as “Hitchcockian.”

The Soft Skin is among the five Truffaut films highly recommended by the TSPDT Guide and has been included among the BFI’s list of François Truffaut’s 10 essential films.

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16 comments:

  1. It definitely has a "cool, detached tone" and serves as essential viewing for Truffaut fans. I think Truffaut is often associated too closely with his Antoine Doinel films and JULES AND JIM. As you pointed out, he was a versatile filmmaker, whose passion for cinema could not be confined to a certain type of film. I remember Françoise Dorléac best from THAT MAN FROM RIO. It was sad that she died so young. She does remind me of her sister, Catherine Deneuve, at times.

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    1. This is not one to watch over and over, though I do enjoy the film - the interlude in Reims is particularly good. I'm always interested in films that are unsuccessful on release but go on to glory. In this case it seems the critics and the public expected Truffaut's 4th film to be more like the first 3 than it was.

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  2. Beautiful review Patty. This is I think the only Truffaut I haven't seen. It will be high on my list. How exciting those early days of the New Wave must have been for its writers and then directors. And to the viewers too. Your various reviews capture the essence of their art and sources of inspiration wonderfully.

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    1. I hope The Soft Skin is to your taste, Christian. I came to it relatively late, 5 or 6 years ago, and wish I'd seen it closer to the time of its release. I understand it barely screened in the US, so there was little chance of that. Jean Desailly and Francoise Dorleac have the most screen time and both are superb, ideally cast. The film is well-written and well shot. There is one element of the plot that could've been better set up, but all in all it is one of Truffaut's best. What I wouldn't give to have been in Paris (and older than I was) from the late '50s through the mid-'60s. And thank you for your kind words and for co-hosting this blogathon with me, Christian.

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    2. My pleasure to have co-hosted with you - many excellent blog posts with a great variety of films chosen. I'll look for screening opportunities for The Soft Skin. And Paris in the 50s was exploding with those American movies too - older 1940s movies just then being released that would be labelled "films noir."

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    3. We must do this again next year, perhaps on Bastille Day (our original plan)...

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  3. One of the great things about this blogathon is the introduction to so many fascinating films, some of which I've never even heard of. This is one such film, and you can bet I'll be looking for it soon.

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    1. This was a different direction for Truffaut and, among other things, it proved his versatility. His filmography is diverse, I hope you have a chance to explore it, Ruth.

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  4. Beautifully written (as always). I am gingerly dipping my toes back into French cinema after decades of neglect. I think I can approach it with a more appreciative eye. Merci for hosting this lovely blogathon.

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    1. Thank you! Wishing you a fabulous time on your upcoming trip - which I'm hoping will provide a side effect of enhancing your interest in French cinema.

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  5. I had never thought about that final smile like you did - and it makes a lot of sense. I love Truffaut and this film, as almost all his films, gets better as we rewatch it and investigate its influences. Wonderful article.
    I'm inviting you to my blogathon. Feel free to participate as a blogger or reader:
    https://criticaretro.blogspot.com/2019/08/announcing-luso-world-cinema-blogathon.html
    Cheers!
    Le

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    1. It was the last time I watched the film that the smile struck me the way that it did - as a subtle reflection of Norman Bates's final smile. Gave me a chill.
      Thank you for the invitation, Lê!

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  6. I'll have to see this film! Thanks for this great review!

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