The literal “bang” that ends François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin is something of an afterthought to the film’s primary dilemma, in which Pierre (Jean Desailly), a renowned literary scholar, must elect either to continue living with his wife, Franca (Nelly Benedetti), and young daughter or relinquish his “family man” comforts for the company of Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), a stewardess with whom he begins a secretive love affair. The Soft Skin is often discussed as the first of Truffaut’s “Hitchcockian” films, in a sequence that includes The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid. While pegging Truffaut’s film as Hitchcockian is tempting given its outward interest in men coveting women, The Soft Skin is more a prototype for the kind of contemplative film concerned with ennui that Eric Rohmer sought to perfect over the next decade, particularly in My Night at Maud’s and Love in the Afternoon.
Truffaut uses Pierre’s timidity and cowardice not as a means to visualize obsession and desire a la Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, but to interrogate a certain type of timidity and cowardice, which Truffaut renders with an ambivalent eye. That’s Truffaut’s addition to the equation: He denies a more viscerally inclined treatment of the pathetic male in favor of an existential diagnosis of abused cultural privilege, but avoids outright condemnation of any characters, particularly Pierre. After all, the quotidian places that Pierre finds himself in at the beginning of the film—subway, apartment, car—are no more invigorated by his interactions with Nicole, as the pair often dwell in hotel rooms, cafés, and airports. They’re of no difference in Truffaut’s eye, as he provides each space a similarly hurried and unremarkable treatment, as if refusing to bestow Pierre’s silent plea of midlife dissatisfaction any formal currency. When Pierre scribbles out a telegram to Nicole while standing in the middle of an airport, the film forgoes its delivery. Yet Truffaut has shown its creation with an attention to specificity in a manner that suggests his cinema as being redirected inward, so that the information of a letter matters not to the film’s progression of narrative events, but invites a more complex understanding of precisely why Pierre cannot actualize his desires. Since Nicole never receives the letter, the film’s focus remains solely on Pierre’s frazzled state of mind.
Nevertheless, The Soft Skin isn’t a straightforward psychologizing of the white, middle-class intellectual, since Pierre isn’t meant to be simply a figure of either contempt or admiration. Herein lies Truffaut’s wager, and it’s ultimately a difficult one to support, since the film operates under the assumption that there’s something inherently worthy about its subject matter, where the white intellectual is unquestionably a figure of substantial curiosity. Truffaut wagers that Pierre is interesting because the character’s very dilemmas align closely with the director’s own. After all, Truffaut’s actual apartment doubles for Pierre’s in the film. Nicole is framed as an object of beauty and desire for Pierre, and Truffaut legitimizes these desires by entertaining them as cinematic in the first place. Cinematic and pleasant, to the extent that Truffaut’s scenario panders to a presumed intellectual viewer who’ll be able to recognize both immediacy in the film’s subject and its ambivalence, thus commending its lack of moralizing and refusal to make a resolute assessment of its characters, through a consistently understated visual style.
In addition, Truffaut intends the events to have a realist dimension, thus offering them as stinging social critique. A contemporary corollary can be found in Force Majeure, a film that also ridicules petty, bourgeois characters along realist lines, but likewise leaves enough space for the characters to not be mere caricatures of discontent. However, the decision in both films to “flesh” them out is motivated by an evasion of being charged with a simplified presentation of terms. As such, from Truffaut to Östlund, these films constitute a force mineur, where critiques of bourgeois behaviors are assuaged by a formal modesty that neglects to complicate the matters at hand. These kinds of films, inaugurated with The Soft Skin, are frauds against truly divisive, class-based works, like Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, since those films actively refuse to be understood as having an easily identifiable, corresponding relationship to contemporary social realities.
François Truffaut’s images have a softness that this Blu-ray transfer properly preserves by maintaining a balance and focus throughout scenes of Pierre and Nicole in close-up, while emphasizing enclosed spaces without any signs of compression or image enhancement. Contrast is strong, with darker portions of images looking particularly striking. There are no significant marks, scratches, or defects to be found. The audio track clearly maintains a balance between dialogue and Georges Delerue’s score, which forms an essential component of Truffaut’s aesthetic sensibilities. Finally, the subtitle translation is clear, without grammatical errors, and appears to capture the dialogue’s literary qualities with accuracy.
Unlike their other recent, robust releases of canonical French New Wave titles, the Criterion Collection has given The Soft Skin a rather modest, but worthwhile assortment of supplements, primarily offering assessments of the film with relation to Truffaut’s book on Alfred Hitchcock. A video essay entitled "The Complexity of Influence" by Kent Jones traces this question explicitly, examining portions of the film in relation to its potentially Hitchcockian qualities. Jones locates "suspense of ordinary situations" as a shared interest between the directors, but ultimately warns against rigidly understanding influence as a deliberate, conscious act on the part of not just Truffaut, but any filmmaker. In addition, a documentary by Robert Fischer explains Truffaut’s relationship with Hitchcock, primarily through the testimony of family and friends. Fischer’s work is intriguing, but hardly essential, mainly because the bulk of its runtime is devoted to secondhand accounts of interactions and biographical details. A brief interview with Truffaut helps explain the film’s origins, which came about after Truffaut witnessed a couple kissing in a taxi and could "hear their teeth clacking as they kissed." Such a peculiar detail is also mentioned in the feature commentary track by screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard and François Truffaut scholar Serge Toubiana, which largely consists of an oscillation between details about the film’s production and discussions of the film’s meaning (as in whether or not Pierre is meant to be a likeable character). Finally, an essay by Molly Haskell explains the film’s "Hitchcockian" aspects, in addition to explaining its "mordant humor" and "generous and unsparing" treatment of Pierre.
The Criterion Collection chalks off another underseen film by a high-profile director from their checklist with this suitable Blu-ray release of François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin.