Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.4: Francois Truffaut's The Soft Skin

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 75 (B+)

Come, now. He couldn’t keep the run of masterpieces going forever. Francois Truffaut’s first three films (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim) would constitute as possibly the finest run of first three films by any director in the history of film. Whatever came next is almost bound to be viewed as minor because of it. 1964’s The Soft Skin is reasonably well-liked, but as the last of his real “New Wave” era films, it’s easy to see it as a whimpering end to a bang-era, particularly following Jules and Jim, another, better tale of amour fou. But that’s not to say that it’s a weak film by any means. Quite the contrary: it’s a lively piece of work that shows Truffaut taking a fresh, Hitchcockian approach to melodrama.

Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) is a highly respected writer, and an editor for a literary magazine. He has a beautiful wife, Franca (Nelly Benedetti), and a daughter, Sabine. One day, while on a flight to a talk he’s giving on Balzac, he connects with flight attendant Nicole (Francoise Dorleac), and the two begin a passionate affair. But Franca suspects Pierre of cheating, and Nicole feels limited by Pierre’s marriage and duties as a scholar.

It sounds like a fairly standard relationship-focused melodrama, but Truffaut invests the situation with the life and vitality of the French New Wave. The director’s greatest influence, Alfred Hitchcock, figures into the equation here: composer George Delarue’s score plays like a winking homage to the scores of Bernard Herrmann, and Truffaut often uses the serious music for less that serious purposes (thriller music plays for a race to the airport). Truffaut makes particularly good use of POV-shots as Pierre watches the gorgeous Nicole on the flight, looks at her legs, and clearly leers at her in the elevator of their hotel. There’s a real thrill to watching someone, and to peeking into their illicit relationship, like we’re seeing something we shouldn’t be seeing. Truffaut also drags out the tension to unbearable lengths, as if the two getting together was the most devastating thing in the world.

And quite frankly, it is in the world of the film. Pierre’s relationship with Nicole has that same feel of liberation that Truffaut so beautifully evoked in the first half of Jules and Jim (it doesn’t hurt that Francoise Dorleac is wonderful as Nicole), but the constrictions of society are, for the first time in a Truffaut film, not necessarily viewed as a negative. Franca loves Pierre, and his irritations at her are completely petty (she accidentally threw out a newspaper he wanted to save). Her question, “weren’t you happy here?”, can’t help but sound reasonable, considering that she hasn’t done anything wrong. It’s just a midlife crisis, albeit one with disastrous consequences, and it isn’t as if Pierre pays more attention to what Nicole wants than he does to Franca- he’s too devoted to his work as an artist and a critic (a recurring theme of Truffaut’s) to function.

The Soft Skin is more rigorously structured than Truffaut’s previous films, and while it gives the film a likable feeling of restraint, it doesn’t have the same intoxicating power that Truffaut’s first three films have. But the film builds a cumulative power in its final third as it grows increasingly clear that Pierre’s infidelity has driven poor Franca to the brink of insanity. By the final twenty minutes, it’s clear that Franca will kill Pierre, but Truffaut follows Hitchcock’s dictum of how to create suspense (something first spelled out in Truffaut’s book of interviews with Hitchcock): show a bomb ticking, then show those around it unaware as they carry on like nothing will happen. The bomb is Franca, the victim Pierre, and Truffaut is the master director, playing us all like a piano.

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