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Pierre Lachenay, a middle-aged, well-known publisher and lecturer, is married to Franca, an unbalanced woman, and father of Sabine, a 10-year-old girl. While traveling to Lisbon for a lecture, Pierre Lachenay has a one night stand with Nicole, the Panair do Brasil air stewardess. He wants to see her again and again, they travel to Reims together, and Pierre hides the affair from his family, mostly to spare his daughter the anguish of a separation. Nicole is taking it lightly but Pierre, misunderstanding her feelings and expectations, decides to live with her. The couple's break-up leads to a tragic end. Written by
Life's Tender Surface: Truffaut's Departure from Nouvelle Vague
The title of the film, LA PEAU DOUCE (THE SOFT SKIN) is notable for the multiple images and meanings it suggests. Truffaut's fourth feature film is study of the delicate balances of life and the important role that happenstance can play.
The opening sequence sets everything in motion. Pierre is rushed to the Paris airport and very nearly misses his plane for Lisbon. Had he missed that plane, we would not have the particular chain of events that follow. Chance meetings and ironic occurrences are what makes life 'happen', and they can disrupt the delicate surface (the 'soft skin') of what looks like a complacent, bourgeois existence.
Apart from having a roving eye, Pierre Lachenay is a pretty harmless figure. He has achieved a degree of success in the literary field as an editor and scholar (not a risk-taking creator, but one who safely appreciates the creativity of others such as Balzac or Gide). With everything seemingly under control in his life, he is unable to resist the compulsion to pursue the flight attendant. Apart from her physical appeal, Nicole offers Pierre a different angle on life: non-intellectual and romantic. The film does not condemn Pierre for his dalliance. By using Jean Desailly for the lead, Truffaut allows us to see him as an 'Everyman'. This could happen to anybody. Nicole, for her part, is attracted to Pierre's intellect and the way he brings out her own natural intelligence. This dynamic is central: the characters compliment each other. Casting a handsome actor like Alain Delon would have destroyed this effect.
What is interesting to watch in this film is the way Pierre's life gradually self-destructs. He is fully aware of what he is doing and Desailly is adept at conveying the protagonist's ambivalence. He does not really want to give up his home life for Nicole, yet he is drawn by her enough to continue an affair that will lead to annihilation. A finely-drawn portrait of middle-class life is given to us in this film. We are allowed to see the way someone can be busy enough (in this case with travelling) not to take the trouble to observe how complacent his life really is. And the disrupting effect of his affair on the delicate surface of his life is devastating. It is hard not to be sympathetic when Nicole leaves him--now he has no one.
The Reims sequence is particularly effective is showing how superfluous Nicole really is to Pierre. He brings her along, then ends up virtually ignoring her. Without meaning to be, she is only a disruptive element. The Reims scenes also exemplify the film's view of men and women as fundamentally different. Men, in this film, are intellectual and unable to express feeling properly, or at all. Women are all emotion, outsiders to the abstract world of men. For this reason, Franca (his wife) destroys Pierre, who has destroyed the only life she has. While seemingly reductive, this is a valid way to look at the genders in the early 60s, before women were consistently viewed as having a life outside the home.
The film's title can refer to Nicole's seductive, soft skin. It can also signify the tremulous, unstable quality of life. There is also a joke, in the Reims theater lobby: Truffaut allows us to view a poster for a film called PEAU DE BANANE (BANANA SKIN). The joke is typical of the Nouvelle Vague elements that Truffaut was gradually shedding, or incorporating into his style. Elements that remain are the jump cuts and use of real locations, particularly Paris. But the luminous black-and-white photography and Delerue's beautiful score, point toward a more a more conventional style. LA PEAU DOUCE is a calm, transitional film after Truffaut's three New Wave masterpieces.
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