Barely released in the U.S. upon its initial completion in 1964, Francois Truffaut’s masterfully engaging “The Soft Skin” was the New Wave director’s first effort to tackle mature frustrations. That’s not to say Truffaut’s first three features lacked depth: “The 400 Blows” tapped into the innocence of youth, “Shoot the Piano Player” successfully deconstructed the gangster genre and “Jules and Jim” studied the fragility of lifelong friendships. Nevertheless, the travails of lonely professor Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), compelled to cheat on his wife (Nelly Benedetti) with capricious stewardess Nicole (Francoise Dorleac), convey much darker convictions centered on how an act of desperation can have morbid consequences.
A family man whose academic fame requires him to travel the lecture circuit, Lachenay always seems like he’s on the move. Within minutes of the introduction to his family life, Truffaut shows the man dashing to the airport moments before his flight’s departure. As the music blares and a montage of close-ups show him speeding down the highway, the director creates an unlikely suspense scene in which the stakes exist entirely within the main character’s mind. (Despite the frantic nature of the scene’s construction, the dialogue between Lachenay and a friend is fairly routine: “Is your lecture on Stendhal?” “No, Balzac.”)
When conceiving the movie, Truffaut had recently completed his series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, which would soon come out in a seminal volume still essential to Hitchcock scholars. For that reason, it’s easy to read the energetic symbolism of “The Soft Skin” in terms of Hitch’s influence, particularly the obsession with objects to convey an uneasy state of mind. Constantly fiddling with rotary phones or trapped in awkwardly shaped airport corridors, Lachenay always seems one degree removed from what he really wants to do with himself.
The Master of Suspense often relied on the chaos of communication to ratchet up a sense of anticipation, which Truffaut does here by making it impossible for Lachenay to say what he means to the women in his life. Initially drawn to the exoticism of young Nicole, he never entirely commits to her until it’s too late. Caught in a love triangle of his own making, Lachenay dooms himself by being unable to please either side of it.
Hitchcock, however, typically relied on such situational conflict for the sake of a spectacular finish. His emphasis on “MacGuffins,” meaningless plot details necessary to put it in motion, relegated him to the role of supreme craftsmanship. Giddily amoral, Hitchcock almost always used his characters to put on an exciting show.
The excitement in “The Soft Skin,” however, gives way to an intense tragedy that’s informed by the thrills. Lachenay’s constant uneasiness is terrifying. (On the brink of adapting “Fahrenheit 451,” Truffaut may have already discovered his dystopia in modern times.) Always late and perpetually unsatisfied, Lachenay has much in common with the downtrodden professor in Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” suffering from a deeper sadness than Hitchcock usually bothered to construct. Lachenay’s MacGuffin is his own restless mind, and it dooms him. He winds up caught between two worlds and, unable to choose just one, suffocates when both collapse on top of him.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening in a new print at Film Forum this weekend, “The Soft Skin” will tour nationally this summer, presumably bringing new acclaim to this underseen classic. Check the Janus Film site for updates.
criticWIRE grade: A