François Truffaut’s oeuvre is full of disappointments and miracles, both great and small. Above all it is full of surprises, some of them overwhelming. In several instances, textbook classics that don’t measure up to their canonical stature contrast sharply with lesser-known works which present a far more cogent case for their creator’s greatness.
In scanning the director’s filmography, it is immediately apparent that the unapologetic, airtight auteurist coherence that characterises the output of his nouvelle vague confreres Godard, Rivette and Rohmer is absent. While undeniably personal, Truffaut’s cinema is equally concerned with commercial stability and mainstream acceptance. Yet rather than opting for a bland, fixed formula, Truffaut negotiated a sometimes precarious career path marked by irregularly alternating bolder, more intense projects with tamer ones; consistently trying to film against the previous movie, to break with its intentions. It must be stressed that the qualitative difference between films consists of varying degrees of what can best be described as either modesty or openness, depending on the film; none of them are anonymous, none dismissable as hackwork. Whatever he produced always adhered to the self-imposed values of being, on the one hand, unshakably true to an artisanal ideal of an independent filmmaking and, on the other, avoiding experimentalism extreme enough to alienate average spectators. The priority either of these imperatives assumed in relation to the other was a constant variable. This intriguing oscillation traceable from one film to the next is perhaps what prompted Jean-Michel Frodon to define Truffaut’s work, generously, as healthily “impure” in a wonderful recent tribute to the filmmaker (1).
But the fact remains that some films are decidedly better than others and that the lesser works would almost invariably have benefited from a less selflessly populist gloss. At his worst, Truffaut lacks arrogance. It would be easier to accept the weaker movies if they were not haunted by the genius of his best work, if they didn’t often feel not like failures but like stammered excuses for better films that could have existed in their stead. When at his best, Truffaut proved as hard and penetrating a dissector of human emotion as Bergman while remaining as warm as his hero, Renoir. Nowhere is this more evident than in his much neglected 1964 masterpiece La Peau Douce (The Silken Skin).
I’m prepared to make perhaps apparently extravagant claims for this unusually dark, melancholic film, which I consider to be, along with Two English Girls (1971) its maker’s supreme achievement. After initial critical and box office failure and 40 years of comparative obscurity, La Peau Douce is in dire need of reappraisal.
It is possible to perceive La Peau Douce as, within the context of Nouvelle Vague aesthetics, reactionary; the first big step towards the comparative classicism that has subsequently problematised Truffaut’s position in relation to the movement’s more overtly innovative heritage. Yet a 40-year gap surely provides sufficient distance to judge this shift in terms of the “impure” creative trajectory of his developing concerns as a resolutely individual filmmaker rather than as part of early ’60s “new cinema” polemics. He explained his eschewing of the improvisationally experimental techniques that formally defined his two previous features, Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste) (1960) and Jules et Jim (1962), in these contemporary comments:
When I was a film critic I was inclined to make fun of directors who declare “the cinema is very difficult”, and I preferred those who said “It’s very easy”. Once I became a filmmaker I found I was forbidden to join up with those of the second tendency… Up to now, I have always had the feeling…of launching a boat onto the sea and then the work consisted of adjusting the tiller day after day to forestall the shipwreck… At present I’m tired of those maritime images, and I would like my fourth film not to be a sinking ship any longer but a train running across the countryside. I’d like to have a fine, regular, harmonious trip… (2)
Elsewhere he described the film as “an antipoetic idea of love, the reverse in a way of Jules et Jim, like a polemical reply” (3).
These statements are worth quoting at length as much for the way they reflect the form and tone of La Peau Douce as for what they actually say about it. An undertone of disillusionment, of tiredness that in no way impairs rigour or lucidity, of the desire for a new order of things seeking a new vehicle better capable of clearly articulating and mirroring its exigencies. A film about adultery that “cheats on” the relationship Truffaut had formed with cinema, that seeks a different experience of cinema. As Don Allen points out (4), the protagonist Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) leaves a warm, passionate wife, Franca (Nelly Benedetti), for a cold mistress, Nicole (Françoise Dorleac). Similarly, Truffaut’s familiar paroxysmal spontaneity gives way here to a cool geometry, an immaculately choreographed pattern of choice and chance interweaving in space to complete a form of devastating simplicity – beyond the relative pessimism of the heroic failures present in the previous films, a melancholy image of almost sweetly ineluctable despair predicated on the hero’s weakness.
The reflections and deflections continue. Although Truffaut made clear that the events of this story of a celebrated academic’s affair with a young air hostess and of his wife’s dramatic revenge originated in several newspaper items, the film is invested with many autobiographical details, including the use of Truffaut’s own flat as the Lachenay family home. At the time of making La Peau Douce, Truffaut’s own marriage was on the rocks and he was romantically involved with Françoise Dorleac. As personal filmmaking goes, this is, literally, very close to home. Indeed, the film’s thematic essence is summarised in some lines by Pascal that Lachenay recites to a provincial audience while introducing a film on Gide: “The misfortunes of man stem from one thing – his inability to stay quietly in one room.”
Truffaut might describe his changing approach to improvisation in terms of ships and trains, but it is mainly cars and planes that reveal, guide and frustrate Lachenay’s adventures. Perhaps the most impressive and distinctive feature of La Peau Douce is its deft and insistent mapping of the narrative onto movement in space. It is through travelling that Lachenay meets his mistress; she is an air hostess and their encounters are dictated by her flights. Unable to spend time together at either of their flats, they must travel to be together. As with the couple in Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972), their love is essentially homeless. Yet whereas Pialat creates an isolating wilderness in which the affair, floating freely between typically indeterminate temporal coordinates, assumes a sometimes almost Beckettian degree of abstraction from any external reality, Truffaut’s lovers are constantly, suspensefully subject to the pressures of the spaces around them, forever negotiating an endless course of obstacles and imposed directions that ultimately trap Lachenay. It would seem that Truffaut had more or less realised his famously expressed ambition to make a love story like Hitchcock because the form that he hijacks for this domestic tragedy is that of the thriller.
The mechanics of spatialised suspense are set in motion from the outset. The post-credit opening scene features a hurrying Lachenay emerging from a subway and stopping at a pedestrian crossing. There are no vehicles, but the numbers counting down on the traffic lights indicate that several seconds remain before he is allowed to cross. Intercut tight close ups of Lachenay and the lights show him making his choice: he crosses before they change in his favour. A system to guide his movements is provided but he chooses to transgress it, while remaining inevitably within it. In the first half dozen shots, Truffaut has clearly announced his dramatic investment in the duel between desire and a subjective experience of space; a fixed structure, like the marriage, against which Lachenay must try to plot an individual course, sometimes keeping ahead, sometimes getting trapped.
When he reaches his flat – his immediate destination – it transpires that he is late for a flight to lecture in Lisbon. The reason for his tardiness is revealed: a suicide delayed his train. This portentously brings into play the third element governing the film’s movement: chance, which operates through the manipulation of time, both by imposing crucial delays and bringing about significant synchronicities. A friend rushes him to the airport, a flurry of tightly cut close ups of the car journey that foregrounds the race-against-time thriller pastiche even to the point of bringing in a cop chasing them for speeding. He only just makes the plane, rushing up to it as the steps are pulled away. The approach to the aeroplane is framed in increasingly tight forward dollies from his point of view. At the last moment, Nicole appears for the first time in the film at the top of the steps, towering impressively over Lachenay. The steps are momentarily replaced and he makes his “connection”.
The extreme dramatisation of events from everyday life through mise-en-scène continues throughout the film – made explicit in the mannerist flourish of shooting Lachenay’s meeting with a provincial committee as a recreation of a scene in Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946) – as does the sense of pressing urgency thus imparted. There is never enough time, not enough for Lachenay to spend with his lover and ultimately not enough time to repair his marriage. Nicole’s first appearance in a rapidly moving point of view shot subtly announces Lachenay’s chronic inability to “pin down” their relationship. All of their important encounters will be marked by spatial frustrations, hesitancies and convoluted to-ings and fro-ings: their first encounter in a Lisbon hotel, the product of two elevator journeys and two phone calls, finally postponed by one day at the cost of one missed flight; their attempt to sleep together in Paris marked by protracted dithering over whether to go to a hotel or risk being caught by the concierge at her flat; and, most elaborately, the romantic two days that they attempt to spend in the provinces.
It is significant that when, after tortuous logistical complications, the lovers finally manage to spend a stolen day together in a holiday cottage and are briefly able to enjoy each other in a situation not fraught with the pressures of movement, Franca guesses the truth of her husband’s infidelity: as soon as the couple is still, as soon as they stop moving, they are caught. Her revenge at the end of the film follows the same pattern of suspense and spatial confusion as her husband’s infidelities. Finding photographs of Nicole, she just misses a telephone call from Lachenay hoping to patch things up. She tracks him down to a restaurant and shoots him dead with a hunting rifle. Lachenay’s decision to call her is fraught with indecision; he is finally persuaded to do so by friends. His call misses her by seconds; it is answered by their maid who goes into the hall and then to the window to try and call her employer back to the ‘phone, but she is just too late. Franca’s car is already visible driving away. It is too late for Lachenay to save his marriage; this time he fails to make his “connection”.
Previously, Nicole had broken with Lachenay. The scene of their breakup, also the last time Nicole is seen in the film, takes place in an incomplete flat in an apartment block still under construction. Lachenay hopes to buy the flat for them to start a new life in. The outline of the building, still too incomplete to keep out the cold greyness of the sky, in which Lachenay finds his schemes for a future so abruptly aborted, is the most overtly symbolical use of space in La Peau Douce. The shell of a living space is both a future home that will never be and suggestive of ruin, the wreckage of his family life. Its height above street level further highlights Lachenay’s plight as a man adrift. It is also the end of the line: the couple stands over the movement of the city, removed from the comings and goings that kept them together. Briefly existing above the forces of movement, they have to confront each other for the first time in lucid stasis. The scene ends with Lachenay helplessly watching Nicole rejoin the agitation of the city from the vantage point of the flat, truly high and dry.
The careful use of space throughout to mirror the protagonist’s state of mind is unusual for Truffaut. Not that he is usually slovenly with his backgrounds or that his films leave something to be desired visually. But the tight degree of interaction between space and character and the systematised use of space as vehicle of movement is uniquely elaborate here. Consider even the layout of the Lachenay family flat. Coming in from the hall, there is a flight of stairs that leads to the living room which is, arena-like, on a lower level than the rest of the house. Alongside it, at hall level, is a short passage and a room with a partition that can be wound down like a car window. Truffaut frequently films this unusual layout from above, often with people moving from the lower level up or vice versa. It never feels like a calm, closed place for relaxing in but seems instead to be an almost theatrical space for the constant agitated circulation of bodies. While interiors in Jules et Jim also sometimes displayed a similarly open quality, this was to allow the characters the liberty to circulate at will, whereas here they seem regimented by the spaces they pass through. Space in La Peau Douce is an engine of predetermined narrative progression instead of a variable expanse of character-generated possibility.
This is why Truffaut’s description of La Peau Douce as “a train running across the countryside” is so appropriate. Its intricately designed pattern of incessant movement unfolds with a remarkable smoothness. If the workings of this “train” of narration are complex, the story itself is plaintively simple. There is an interesting contradiction between the truth of the situation and the mode of narration employed; the juggernaut of events makes it sometimes feel that Lachenay is, à la Hitchcock, an innocent prisoner of fate whereas he is in fact guilty of at first creating and then exacerbating a state of affairs that finally destroys his family. According to the merciless morality of an American film noir thriller, he would be severely judged. Yet while Truffaut adamantly places the responsibility for all that transpires on Lachenay’s shoulders, even refusing to give him an alibi stemming from the state of his marriage which seems comparatively stable, he refuses to condemn him. The seemingly objective, fatalistic thriller form which he adopts is so closely tied to Lachenay’s experience of the baffling rapidity of desire and loss that it ends up by constantly empathising with, if never excusing, his actions. Lachenay’s desire in effect becomes “fate” and in treating it as almost a force majeure, Truffaut is able to protect his character’s dignity even in his most hateful and pathetic moments. The terrible outcome is punishment enough.
Truffaut’s even-handed lack of judgement extends to the other characters also. The relationship between Lachenay and Nicole fits the Truffaut paradigm of timid man and enigmatic woman. In conceiving Franca, he was greatly concerned that she not appear as a hysterical caricature of a jilted wife. To this end he even grants her the film’s closing shot, a magnificent final close up, her face drained by suffering. This close up absorbs the melodrama of her husband’s sudden murder, rooting the extravagant action in an emotional devastation the full implications of which, we suspect, are only beginning to sink in. In sympathising equally with all characters he generates a hauntingly tender tragedy. Few films have stuck to the letter of Renoir’s “everyone has their reasons” with such devastating effect.
Of course much of the film’s power comes from the actors, both their performances and Truffaut’s method of filming them. If the “horizontal” rush of the narrative “train” of precisely regulated movement threatens a cold, schematic cinematic experience, this is countered by the gaze of Jean Dasailly, which cuts across the “train’s” passage and endows its progress with emotional immediacy. He is the perfect Lachenay: an unprepossessing, almost mole-like head with a contrastingly handsome, intelligent face that seems on the point of being absorbed by the mediocrity of the rest of his appearance. The winning expressiveness of this face accounts for much of the film’s moment-to-moment emotional precision. Although de Baecque and Toubiana’s (5) masterful biography of Truffaut tells us that his relationship with Dasailly was one of mutual detestation, his performance is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the director’s career.
The other factor which, so to speak, “cuts across” the rapid narrational progress, giving certain moments a sudden access of emotional depth, is Georges Delerue’s music which tends to swell up in sudden, intensely romantic bursts. Against the bustling modernity of air travel and car trips, it seems archaic, the direct expression of Balzac expert Lachenay’s sensibility. La Peau Douce might, as Truffaut said, present an antipoetic idea of love, but the love scenes themselves have a decidedly poetic intensity, thanks in no small part to Delerue’s score coupled with the beautifully controlled tension of anticipation and release that charaterises them. The image of an enraptured Lachenay caressing Nicole’s thighs as she lies exhausted on the holiday cottage bed immediately after their arrival is particularly powerful. The balance between anticipation and release, between a world of bland efficiency and the profound feelings that collide with it, is reflected in the cinematography. The film’s settings might be, on the whole, banal and even drab, especially in contrast to those in Jules et Jim, but Raoul Coutard’s photography imbues them with a controlled, wintry luminosity that is memorably atmospheric, suggestive of the emotions smouldering beneath reality’s increasingly porous crust. The discreet but palpable beauty Coutard is able to conjure forth from such lacklustre surroundings without significantly altering them places La Peau Douce among his greatest achievements.
The sense in which La Peau Douce is, as Truffaut claimed, very much a “polemical reply” to Jules et Jim is in its refusal to idealise “freedom”. In the earlier film love really did become a “poetic idea” which the heroes attempted to live up to. Even if their effort ended in tragedy, it was nothing short of a brave attempt at social revolution on a microcosmic level. Jules et Jim is a celebration of the joy of possibility, a fact reflected in its freewheeling cinematic style. The idea of love in La Peau Douce is purely personal and, as contemporary critics were not slow to point out, bourgeois: the sad, selfish infatuation of an older man with a younger woman who soon loses interest. Its trajectory is despairing in that the only possibilities on offer are tragic. Rather than freedom, it shows this type of love as a binding, destructive obsession. Small wonder it failed on its release and has since been overshadowed by its sunnier, if decidedly inferior, predecessor. Yet there is a compelling desperation about La Peau Douce that gives its moments of hope or intimacy a piercingly moving intensity, while the briskness of its pace never allows it to wallow in abjection. Perhaps the one word that best describes not only La Peau Douce but each of Truffaut’s finest – though not always most highly regarded – films from The 400 Blows (1959) through Two English Girls to The Man Who Loved Women (1977) is one that he once used to define the cinema of Nicholas Ray: “hurt”.
- Jean-Michel Frodon, “Impurs” (editorial), Cahiers du Cinema, July–August 2004.
- François Truffaut, quoted in Dominique Rabourdin (ed.) Truffaut by Truffaut, Harry N. Abrams Inc, New York, 1987, p. 85.
- François Truffaut, interview by Raymond Bellour and Jean Michaud, Lettres francaises, Oct. 30th, 1963; reprinted in Rabourdin, p. 86.
- Don Allen, Truffaut, Secker and Warburg, London, 1974.
- Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut: a Biography, trans. Catherine Temerson, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000.