Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#749: The Soft Skin

(Francois Truffaut, 1964)

A few weeks ago, a fellow Criterion completist posted a quote from Truffaut that basically invalidates my whole blog. As revenge, I thought it fitting that I should queue up Truffaut's follow-up to the masterpiece Jules et Jim, The Soft Skin, the only film of his in the Collection that I have yet to see (Day for Night was released after this one, but I have seen that film a couple of times, though it was years ago at this point). The film was poorly received when it was released, and despite some vocal proponents it remains a lesser entry in the director's catalog. I've had it in my Hulu queue since it appeared there and I was pleased when it received a proper release because it would force me to watch it sooner rather than later.

The Soft Skin is an odd film. On the surface it's a French morality tale that nods to the country's history of domestic melodramas. Yet this might be Truffaut's most technically sophisticated and rich cinematic display to this point in his career. Though the film provides little of the flash and overt style of earlier films like The 400 Blows or Shoot the Piano Player, the way Truffaut uses the basics of framing, shot selection, pacing, and the underrated POV makes it his most assured and neatly composed film.

Because of the narrow focus of the story and its traditional arc, Truffaut could focus entirely on these technical elements; Molly Haskell notes in the Criterion essay that Truffaut was working on his Hitchcock book at the time and it certainly shows. Look at the way Truffaut shoots the scene where the two lovers stop for gas and Françoise Dorléac sneaks away to change into a skirt - although the stakes seem as small as possible, the tension in the way Truffaut cuts back and forth from the characters to the car to the road to the meter on the pump is more reminiscent of the final sequence in Fat Girl than of a typical trip to the gas station. There are plenty of moments like this elsewhere: the claustrophobic style of the dinner Desailly finds himself trapped at while his mistress waits in the hotel room, the extended build of tension from the moment we see the gun to the final explosive act, even the way Desailly is filmed once he realizes he's been caught in a lie by his wife - all of these sequences are treated as high suspense when even the gun would barely register in other hands as anything other than a domestic detail.

The Soft Skin reminded me immediately of Tarantino's films. The way pulp is elevated by style and technique in QT's work makes the act of movie watching interactive and expectation-defying. Here, Truffaut's dedication to the story extends beyond his deft hand behind the camera by consistently damning Desailly's celebrity professor through his actions. But it even extends beyond the scope of the movie, as Truffaut himself would go on to leave his wife shortly after the film's release. In fact, a close look at Lachenay makes his similarities to the director (who was himself a celebrity who initially stood on the shoulders of artists before him to catapult to fame) seem hardly more obscured than those of Fellini or Allen to their respective alter-egos in 8 and 1/2 and Stardust Memories. The more Desailly seems like a stand-in for Truffaut, the more the film feels like a self-loathing confession and punishment, though just as Godard would long to be Belmondo in Breathless, so too would Truffaut be thrilled to die in a hail of bullets, sacrificed for the tragic passion of an ill-fated affair.

Despite the impressive execution of The Soft Skin, I have to wonder if this effort wouldn't have been better served with a stronger story. I don't think Truffaut earns Franca's choice to take up arms, just as Nicole's immediate turn on Lachenay (and his implied contempt toward her) felt more like a plot device than a realistic depiction of the end of an affair. Similarly, the depiction of Lachenay's adolescent impulses and his evolution as a husband and lover doesn't break any new ground. An A+ presentation of a B- story can't save the overall impression from being one of a missed opportunity, and The Soft Skin becomes a mid-level Truffaut film, a must-see for fans of the director but well behind the timeless masterpieces he made before and after.

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