The Soft Skin: Love and Betrayal on the Lecture Circuit

The Soft Skin

A man, a woman, and a pair of stockings come together in an unforgettable sequence in the middle of The Soft Skin. After a stewardess and her lover, a well-known scholar, arrive in provincial Reims, where he’s to speak, she discovers a run in her only stockings. As he leaves to meet his host, she asks him to buy her another pair on his way back to their backstreet hotel. This will take some time, as he is swept up in the obligations of a “celebrity” visit, not least of which in this case is to tell his host to cancel the room in the luxury hotel reserved for him and his wife. Lies large and small accumulate. There are other people to meet, a lunch for local dignitaries and their wives.

When Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) finally makes his way back to the hotel, having just managed to get the stockings, it is to find an angry Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), who’s been cooped up all day—and he’s forgotten to bring her a ticket to the evening lecture. She should buy one at the theater, he tells her, as he departs again.

This scene of humiliation will be repeated in a series of subsequent mortifications: at the theater, the program is sold out, and Nicole is stranded in the lobby; when Lachenay emerges with his chatty host, he sees but can’t acknowledge her and is helplessly whisked away for a drink; ensconced in a café with his colleague, he watches while she walks alone in the darkened town square, repeatedly accosted by a drunk.

Although it won’t happen for a while, the end of the affair is foretold in a palette of shivery light and shadow (the black-and-white photography is by Raoul Coutard). The café window Lachenay stares through becomes a one-way mirror signifying the unbridgeable distance between him and Nicole, underlining the voyeurism of their relationship. The humiliation is by now mutual, since his very manhood is at stake: he is incapable of coming to the rescue of the woman he loves.

These scenes in François Truffaut’s 1964 movie struck me with lasting force then, although at the time I was not yet familiar with the world of the traveling scholar, its fly-by-night intensity, its ambivalent welcoming committees, its red carpets often lined with burrs. It’s not just the absurdity of the Distinguished Professor’s position that Truffaut captures: he makes us feel even more powerfully the hell into which the Other Woman is plunged when she leaves the protected sphere of intimate partner and becomes a nonperson, a distraction, a nuisance.

For all this movie’s originality and mordant humor, The Soft Skin is practically a lost film, one that can hardly even be called an underrated gem, since it hasn’t been exposed widely enough to earn ratings positive or otherwise. Shown first in Cannes, it had the misfortune of following an extraordinary string of critical and popular hits by Truffaut: The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1962). Perhaps he had led audiences to expect something different; critics were nonplussed by what they disparaged as a “bourgeois melodrama.” Like Ophuls? Or Renoir?

The crime of passion, the tale of adultery: these are foundational narratives of French cinema, but the geometry of the triangle is endlessly variable. I know of nothing quite like The Soft Skin, in its tonal unpredictability. Characteristic is the illicit couple’s nightmarish sojourn in Reims, which ranges from the darkly comic to the devastating, often within the same frame. Along with Coutard’s expressive cinematography, Georges Delerue’s lovely, nimble score serves to keep us from being able to settle into a single mood or emotion. As a result, the film looks even fresher today than it did in 1964, and not just because of the haunting presence of Dorléac, who would die just three years later in a car accident.

The man at the triangle’s apex, Desailly’s Lachenay, is no practiced Romeo but a middle-aged Balzac specialist whose travels provide a background for the heady displacement of a man caught completely off guard by a love affair. He is wise in his chosen profession, fond of his work, but utterly helpless in the ways of the world, so that when the beautiful Nicole catches his eye, you know it’s probably the first time he has strayed. And, having just met his wife, Franca (Nelly Benedetti), a smoldering brunette of Latin temperament, you also know that theirs is anything but an open marriage.

In interviews at the time, Truffaut attributed the movie’s failure to viewers’ rejection of the Lachenay character; the director had envisioned him as a sort of adolescent—but without the attractiveness of an adolescent. Lachenay was a grown-up who behaved irresponsibly, and for this audiences wouldn’t forgive him. I felt something of that sort when I first saw The Soft Skin, but that failing—if it is one—only makes the film look more interesting today. In fact, for my money, it’s one of the director’s finest films, subtle, powerfully adult, and profoundly personal. After all, Truffaut, who was responsible for story and script, was by now a celebrity himself, traveling with his films, meeting attractive women in situations where his eye for feminine beauty could no doubt find satisfaction beyond mere voyeurism.

What he gives us is a riveting study of a “family man” who spends a great amount of time away from home, a media celebrity fawned over by his hosts in provincial towns. Lachenay is at the complacent center of a hierarchical universe, one in which women circle and serve their men, and men think of love, when they think of it at all, as (in Byron’s words) a thing apart, whereas ’tis women’s whole existence. Some men manage to establish the love triangle as a modus vivendi, but it is not in the nature of Lachenay or the two women he loves to settle for such an arrangement. The wife is not the sort who can look the other way. The girlfriend cringes at hotels where rooms are rented by the hour. In his pampered obtuseness, Lachenay practically invites the crime of passion that a more practiced lover might have avoided.

The opening of the film establishes a visual shorthand for the powerful pull of adultery. Appearing under the credits, a man’s hand, wedding ring prominently on view, caresses a feminine hand whose slender fingers touch the man’s ring in turn. Adultery and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, the libidinal lure of newer, softer skin tugging at the encircling prison of sacrament. The fetishistic isolation of body parts continues when Lachenay boards a plane and glimpses Nicole by means of her legs, protruding slightly into the aisle in front of him; then, as the plane readies for landing, her ankles, below the curtain in the front of the cabin, as she changes into high-heeled shoes. So far, the camera hasn’t found its way to the beautiful face, which would be merely a distraction from the image of the flesh, the starting point of male desire, as old as humanity, as new as rebirth.

They finally meet in a hotel elevator, in a threesome that includes the handsome pilot—surely she is having or has had an affair with him? This “appropriate pairing” occurs to us. But we also know that in his quiver, Lachenay has fame: he has been recognized at the airport, his poster is plastered all over the town. Later that night, on some pretext, he phones her, she calls back, they meet in the hotel bar for a drink that lasts until dawn. She is not especially educated but bright and sufficiently versed in TV-literary gossip to ask leading questions, to appreciate a tutorial. And, ignited by her, his finest qualities are on display: eloquence, perception, interest in something beyond himself.

One interviewer at the time found it implausible that the beautiful young girl would be attracted to the middle-aged hero and spend “all these hours sitting in a restaurant listening to him lecture about Balzac.” But how could she not have fallen in love? The minute he begins discussing his work, he is no longer unappealing. We can feel the contagion, the way they are both lit up, the humor—a quality of which his ordinary life appears barren. Theirs is the erotic bond between teacher and pupil, one of the fiercest because it’s intellectual as well as sensual and emotional.

That is, of course, the great moment of the love affair, the moment before it begins: before work and love pull them in different directions; before the scruples and grooming of this nice girl from the provinces prove unamenable to the furtive ways of adultery; before the suspicions of a passionate wife run roughshod over the niceties of bourgeois behavior.

Truffaut was working on his book of interviews with Hitchcock at the time, and critics have pointed to the master’s influence on The Soft Skin, with its themes of violence and revenge, the chilly impersonality of the world its characters inhabit, even the classical opposition (which Truffaut wanted to avoid) of Benedetti’s explosive brunette and Dorléac’s cool blonde. But although the fatal ending has its own mad logic, genre violence wasn’t natural to Truffaut; the appearance of a gun in his work feels abrupt, like a jack-in-the-box—this is even truer in his other “Hitchcockian” films, The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), than in this one. Truffaut’s compassionate view is closer to that of Renoir and the realist tradition of French cinema in its social portraiture, its acceptance of a world in which there are no real villains. The characters are complex and sufficiently ambiguous to warrant Renoir’s famous axiom that tout le monde a ses raisons.

The filmmaker’s treatment of Lachenay is both generous and unsparing. He never accords him the kind of winking indulgence that might soften and “redeem” him, but neither does he condemn him outright. Truffaut, who would soon be leaving his own wife (reportedly for Dorléac), implicates himself, and pitilessly, in the character, who is comical, obtuse, charming, and stodgily sexist: He likes his girlfriend to wear a skirt. He likes to watch her dance.

In a happier replay of the voyeuristic motif of the post-lecture scene (and in one of the film’s rare moments of unalloyed joy), they visit a nightclub, where he sits on the sidelines while, at his urging, she gyrates with wild grace on the dance floor before his glittering eyes. He figures he will get an apartment for her, as men with mistresses do. But she’s beginning to realize—way ahead of him, of course—that it will never work. She’s too young, she would irritate him; he’s too staid, too intellectual.

In a poignant scene near the end of the film, Lachenay and Nicole are in the apartment he has found for her when her father arrives for a visit. Hurriedly leaving, Lachenay passes the father on the stairs. The two men, we realize, are of an age, and Lachenay suddenly looks old, a man who has nothing to offer the young woman upstairs. The moment is a blisteringly truthful portrait of a man who has lost everything but doesn’t quite know it yet.

Desailly surely gives one of the finest performances of his career. He seems to know the territory intimately, and is especially fine in the social encounters with the small-town culture vultures, trying to conceal his boredom, radiating false modesty. These transactions are marvels of social observation on Truffaut’s part; no one has better caught the whole fraught, exhausting phenomenon, the way hosts smile with shark’s teeth as they go for their pound of flesh.

At the end of that excruciating night in Reims, Lachenay and Nicole, skipping town, speed past the hotel entrance where stands Mein Host, suitcase packed, waiting for a ride to Paris. The host is a suck-up and a royal pain in the ass (but doesn’t the poor guy deserve a better fate?), Lachenay is a coward (yet who can blame him?). It is a small, unforgettable gem of a scene: mean, hilarious, humiliating, a cataclysm of cross-purposes, but exhilarating in its acrid sense of multiple truths, multiple reasons. And maybe also Hitchcockian in its aura of impending doom, the impossibility of escape.

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