Truffaut’s “The Soft Skin”
On a recent day off in Manhattan, I saw Truffaut’s The Soft Skin (1964) at Film Forum. I should admit here that if you put me in front of a film made in the 1960s, shot in black and white, and set in Paris, for a while it doesn’t matter what the characters do – I am entranced by the atmosphere, gripped by nostalgia for a time I barely remember and a place I never knew.
But even for me that can’t sustain a whole movie, and The Soft Skin – while not a masterpiece – has a few other things to recommend it. For me its most brilliant sequence comes when the main character, a married, middle-aged intellectual and magazine editor (played by Jean Desailly), is on the road with his mistress (Françoise Dorléac). They stop at a filling station; after the pump is put into the car’s tank – an obvious metaphor for sex – the camera moves to the rising numbers showing the cost of the gas. Meanwhile, the mistress, having been told minutes earlier by her lover that he prefers her dresses to the jeans she is wearing, impulsively takes out a dress and goes to the restroom. As the man pulls out his wallet – about to pay the price for what he has gotten – his mistress reappears, looking different to him now. It’s the whole story, told in a minute, without words.
The ending, which seems to come out of nowhere, weakens the film even as it gives the story’s events a feeling of consequence they might otherwise lack. The guy sitting alone behind me didn’t seem to feel ambivalent about it. “Good for you,” he said to the screen.