Emotional Espionage: Francois Truffaut’s La Peau Douce (1964) – Blu-ray review
Truffaut borrows Hitchockian thrills to probe the ambiguities of an affair. Cold, controlled, mature – yet Truffaut can’t resist those unexpected tonal shifts.
La Peau Douce
(Francois Truffaut, 1964)
The vexed question of fidelity was so central to the French New Wave that it was probably inevitable that an affair would be such a ripe subject for a film. The movement was founded on the idea of magpie borrowing, of cheating on the traditions of French cinema by making out with Hollywood genres and styles. And yet the critics-turned-filmmakers were so faithful to their manifesto, their “politique des auteurs,” that it would clearly feel morally bankrupt to sell out – which is why, for example, Jean-Luc Godard never made a Star Wars film.
That dichotomy is laid bare in Truffaut’s La Peau Douce, which is a forensic examination of an affair capable of seeing all sides. Truffaut both captures the intimacy within the lovers’ bubble, but also views it dispassionately from afar. After the freewheeling odysseys of Truffaut’s first three features, the result feels more restrained and conventional – a normal film, you might say. Yet such control means that the slightest deviation has enormous ramifications – aptly, given the subject – and Truffaut’s maturity makes its tonal transitions count.
This was the first time that the disciple turned to his master, Hitchcock, for inspiration, and there’s a cold, nervy energy to much of the film as mild-mannered intellectual Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) abandons his boring life for the thrill of the illicit after meeting air stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac). The mood is partly a stylistic choice – of course, Truffaut was going to make a Hitchcockian thriller – but it is fascinating so see the mechanics of suspense turned to something so banal. This isn’t espionage, but the danger of getting caught remains palpable, and the editing – notably the panicky cutaways to Pierre’s shifty eyes – capture a familiar sense of Hitchcockian dread.
The rigour of making a quasi-thriller also delivers a newfound emotional ambiguity for Truffaut. Yes, Charlie in Shoot The Pianist had dealings with the criminal world; sure, the central trio in Jules Et Jim lived by their own moral code – but they were essentially decent people, and Truffaut obviously loved them. That’s not the case here. The director’s humanism brings empathy, but Desailly’s guilt-wracked performance – and Dorléac ‘s icy reticence as his lover – are delicately shaded. As somebody who loathes the characters in Jules Et Jim, for me this is a welcome development; the sober approach is an antidote to the earlier film’s flightiness.
With it, Truffaut turns the screws. The jittery excitement of the lovers’ initial meeting contrasts to the calm, claustrophobic, stifling tracking shots at home – a brilliant, split-level place where partitions have to be created to provide privacy. But just when you think you’ve got a handle on the film, Truffaut delivers a sustained piece of black-hearted farce, as a dirty weekend in Reims goes catastrophically wrong as Pierre realises he has double-booked, commitment-wise. Funny and cruel, it punctures the high and makes the ‘hero’ look pathetic.
Bolder still is the film’s final act, as Pierre’s trangressions are revealed and Nicole is virtually sidelined as the film becomes a duel between Pierre and screen wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti). The latter comes to dominate, both in narrative and emotional involvement – the fidelity in the story explodes, impossible to contain because Pierre has forgotten (to borrow the film’s visual metaphor) to switch off one light before switching on the next. While La Peau Douce isn’t as radical as Truffaut’s other films – or similarly themed Nouvelle Vague work like Godard’s Le Mepris – it certainly takes courage to so savagely switch gears this late in the day.