The Soft Skin (1964)

Human–all too human

Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) is a middle-aged Parisian literary critic–married to Franka (Nelly Benedetti). While travelling to one of his many speaking engagements, he meets Nicole (Francoise Dorleac)–a beautiful, free-spirited airline stewardess. Pierre and Nicole begin an affair. Pierre’s wife soon suspects, and Pierre has to make a decision.

Jean Desailly is masterful as the shallow, vain Pierre–whose public persona and lofty ideals soon fall by the wayside. The looks of longing he sends to Nicole on the first evening they meet are perfect. Nelly Benedetti as Franka–the wronged wife–is coiled as tightly as a snake, and the domestic scenes between Pierre and Franka are loaded with tension and resentment. Special note here for Francoise Dorleac–if she looks familiar–that’s because she is Catherine Deneuve’s older sister. French cinema has enjoyed a long love affair with Deneuve, but Francoise Dorleac’s career was cut short when she was tragically killed in a car accident in 1967 at age 25.

The Soft Skin is Francois Truffaut’s fourth film–made before he entered his French New Wave period. One of the biggest criticisms of this film is that the plot is old and stale. Yet fidelity–or the lack thereof–is one of Truffaut’s favourite themes. I did not find the plot stale at all. In “the Soft Skin,” Truffaut plays with the notion of chance–he emphasizes, for example how close Pierre comes to missing the plane–and Nicole, but at the same time, character weighs in heavily. It is Pierre’s character that leads him into the affair, and his vanity that suggests Nicole dress suitably as a companion for him–while at the same time, he casually abandons her on weekend that is supposed to be a romantic retreat. And it is Pierre’s shallowness that suggests they take a room at a shabby hotel that literally rents rooms for 15 minute periods. Truffaut suggests that while chance plays a certain role in our lives, character is dominant.

In spite of the fact that this black and white film was made in the 60s, it did not seem dated at all (yes there were extended scenes with a rotary dial phone). The issues are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. This is a wonderful film, and well worth seeing if you are a lover of French cinema.

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