Distrust of entrenched institutions like religion, politics, and marriage are core themes of the French New Wave, and this emotional anxiety permeates throughout François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin, a mesmerizing morality play detailing the machinations of adultery and their deadly consequences. At this point in Truffaut’s short directing career, his focus on infidelity evolves into a darker realm, a sinister place where characters cannot escape their costly romantic decisions. While his masterful debut, The 400 Blows, shows martial turmoil as just one of the many adult failures plaguing Jean-Pierre Léaud’s young Antoine, it’s front and center in The Soft Skin, seen as an organic offshoot of upper-class apathy and ideological arrogance. Famous academic and seemingly devoted family man Pierre (Jean Desailly), who begins an affair with a younger stewardess named Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) during a lecture tour in Lisbon, embodies this combination throughout the film.
The opening credits play over a two pairs of hands caressing each other in extreme close-up, illuminated only by flickering light and intertwined as if they were part of the same body. Truffaut uses the close-up throughout not only to insinuate seduction and lust, but impending tension and destruction. Pierre and Nicole lock eyes for the first time on the plane, and each gaze tells us everything we need to know about their intentions. Later, when the two accidentally meet on an elevator, Nicole partially obscures her face with two gifts using her eyes to flirtatiously guide Pierre’s attention. Pierre returns to his hotel room clearly excited, the musical score growing louder as he turns on each light. He becomes more emboldened by the second, eventually asking Nicole to a date and thus beginning their tryst. Later, as the pair disembarks the plane in Paris, Truffuat amplifies the seduction even more with a brilliantly timed freeze frame at the moment they glide past each other.
If the opening act of The Soft Skin is constructed around knowing glances and subtle touches, the rest of the film shatters the fantasy by slowly descending from this initial vacuum of perpetual excitement into to a much harsher reality. We begin to see the consequences of the affair on the home front, with Pierre’s wife Franca (Nelly Bendetti) growing increasingly perturbed at her husband’s mood swings. The cracks deepen when Pierre takes Nicole on a vacation to Reims where he’s supposed to introduce a film screening. Complications arise when Pierre is forced into work obligations he didn’t anticipate, relegating Nicole alone and isolated in the hotel room and later subjecting her to a humiliating moment on the steps of the theater. What was supposed to be a romantic weekend casually turns into a nightmarish trip of broken promises and failed expectations. Truffaut weaves the bravura set piece like a stone-cold thriller, building tension around the spacing of characters and stretched-out duration of crucial indecisions. Even though the segment ends with the lovebirds reunite, the scars left from the experience are indelible.
Pierre’s opening lines to his Reim’s speech—“I’ve learned that man’s unhappiness arises from the inability to stay quietly in his own room”—becomes a prophetic statement when he returns home to Paris. Franca’s increasing volatility and Nicole’s uncertainty leave Pierre stuck between a self-imposed sense of entitlement and his many devastating weaknesses. At this point, The Soft Skin abandons all hope of attaining what its title promises, flaking away the hard scales of indifference as each human entity falls apart. These adults lose track of all other concerns, be it with academia, work, parenting, and even love, falling prey to the failing expectations of emotional connection. Franca takes it upon herself to end the cycle permanently, and Truffaut once again expands the sequence to illustrate the human and ideological impact of the violence.
“I don’t like ambiguous situations,” Franca warns Pierre during one of their final squabbles, and Truffaut sees her words as the mission statement for his film’s thematic center. Pierre’s casual treatment of his actions remains far more damning than the actual cheating, spinning the female characters around him in motion until each is dizzy from the run around. Wealthy, intelligent, and completely clueless, Pierre comes to represent the very elder elite Truffaut and the rest of the French New Wave are rebelling against. Franca’s devilish smile ends The Soft Skin, relaying a scathing message to the autocrats of France that its suffering women (and young auteurs) aren’t going to take their abuse of power and emotion anymore. Like Salt-N-Pepa said, “Shotgun bang.”