There might be an initial predilection to call The Soft Skin Francois Truffaut’s most conventional film to date, but for me, it shows at this fairly early point in his career he seems to have grasped the main tenets of traditional filmmaking. Because his first films are full of life, energy, and idiosyncratic verve that easily charm their audience but here we see a film that in most ways looks like other classic works, well constructed and still quite engaging. Because within this very framework Truffaut is able to play around with issues that in themselves are still quite compelling. Love, intimacy, infidelity, and the like. Even with familiar names like Truffaut and Raoul Coutard, it feels very un-Nouvelle Vague. And that’s okay.
We often expect comedy from Truffaut as he shows in many of his other films but here everything is fairly reserved and understated dictated by our gentlemanly protagonist Pierre (Jean Desailly) and accentuated by most everyone else. They are not inserted into the story line to make light of issues but to actually grapple with these real life circumstances in ways that feel quite candid in their humanness.
Furthermore, Truffaut’s films are often, cinematically speaking, very self-aware but aside from a brief foray into a documentary on Andre Gide, our characters seem very much absorbed in their own world with the problems at hand and Truffaut seems to realize that. As audience members, we too become implicit accomplices to this tryst and that’s where the story comes into being.
Pierre is a managing editor of a prominent publication with a lovely wife and sweet little girl. He’s well off and travels across France in high demand at lectures and cultural galas. People want his autograph.
But in a moment he meets someone. Truffaut allows them to interact and pass each other by without anything happening. That’s the key. As I imagine it is with real life, moments go by and it’s in those passing moments that things begin to unfold. Pierre is taken by the stewardess (Francoise Dorleac) he now sees in the elevator and then invites her for a drink awkwardly. It begins there. He’s clumsy about it but his respectability and candidness probably attract the girl.
The title, of course, implies the very physical nature at the core of an affair. It’s the touch, the feel, the intimacy that is longed for. But it runs awry because that very thing that is craved becomes muddied by deception and infidelity that threatens to tear relationships apart. Not just with spouses and friends but the very people who are caught up in the throes of the affair. There’s the necessity to keep them hidden, skip out on them at a moment’s notice so as to not raise suspicion.
Everything is clouded and nothing is pleasurable anymore. There’s a moral repugnance that often goes with the territory. Of course, the one individual that we might do well to feel the sorriest for is the one we rarely see, the third party who is deceived, in this case, Pierre’s wife.
Still, Pierre is so sincere and Nicole much the same that it’s somehow easy to feel sorry for them as well as Franca. As Nicole notes to Pierre, “you made a real mess of things” partially because he’s having trouble leaving his wife after 15 years and he still wishes to see his little girl Sabine every day. He’s not much good at the whole affair business. Whether it’s leaving his wife or staying with the girl he’s found.
Perhaps the most poignant scene comes with Nicole on the balcony confiding in Pierre because we understand what she’s trying to hint at. And we don’t see Pierre but you can guess where his thoughts are at that very moment. In not so many words she is saying this thing they have won’t work anymore and that’s the end of it — at least in the way he envisioned it all, with marriage, a home, etc. It cannot exist.
And of course he has no recourse but to return to his wife and beg her forgiveness and it seems like a road worth the risk but in his unassertiveness, Pierre puts it off just long enough for it to be too late. There’s no getting it back. Because infidelity, no matter the strain, can be thoroughly insidious undermining trust and planting seeds of doubt and bitterness. That is rocky soil to maintain a relationship on and in cases like this, it can only end in tragedy. It’s true that The Soft Skin blows us out of the water in the end but what makes us stay is the great care it takes in getting there.