Touch and Go

François Truffaut, The Soft Skin, 1964, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 119 minutes.

FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT followed up Jules and Jim (1962), one of his most critically acclaimed and popular films, with another love-triangle story, The Soft Skin (1964). Though it was poorly received upon release (and still often overlooked today), Truffaut’s fourth feature, about a married, middle-aged, celebrated literary critic who has an affair with a flight attendant in her twenties, stands as one of his most emotionally sophisticated, thanks largely to the performance of Françoise Dorléac as the object of desire.

Truffaut’s interest in making a film about adultery was inspired both by an image he had of a couple sharing “a terribly sensual kiss in a taxi in a big city” and by a real-life incident in Paris in the summer of 1963, when a woman walked into a restaurant and killed her cheating husband with a hunting rifle. Pierre (Jean Desailly), the unfaithful spouse of The Soft Skin, is first seen frantically saying goodbye to his adoring wife of fifteen years (Nelly Benedetti) and young daughter in their well-appointed apartment (Truffaut’s own Paris residence) before racing off to the Orly Airport to catch a plane to Lisbon, where he’s giving a lecture on “Balzac and Money.” On the flight he meets stewardess Nicole (Dorléac). She gives him a reproachful look for not extinguishing his cigarette after the NO SMOKING sign is illuminated; he wolfishly gazes at her legs while she changes shoes before landing. In Lisbon, they meet for a drink, staying up until dawn as Pierre regales Nicole with Balzac anecdotes. She invites him to her hotel room; when they return to Paris, she encourages him to call her.

Continuing the affair, though, is made nearly impossible by logistics: Nicole’s erratic schedule, the difficulty of finding assignation spots that aren’t “sordid.” Even a planned two-day lovers’ getaway in Reims, where Pierre is giving another lecture, is nearly bollixed when he can’t break away from his obligations to the town’s cultural mavens, making Nicole eventually break down in humiliation.

But these are the only tears she sheds; no clinging mistress, Nicole is one of Truffaut’s most independent, least manipulative female characters. Forward, frank, and foxy, she casually tells Pierre about her sexual past (“I like to make love, but I can go without for months”); when besotted, bewildered Pierre ultimately demands a much more conventional arrangement, she immediately sees it as domestic imprisonment.

François Truffaut, The Soft Skin, 1964. (Teaser)

The most memorable instance of the free-spirited flight attendant’s self-assurance occurs during Pierre and Nicole’s first dinner together in Paris. In the background, couples shimmy and jerk to a yé-yé record. After inept Pierre encourages Nicole to dance without him, she immediately establishes herself as the most graceful, sensual gyrator on the floor. Dancing with herself, Dorléac gives one of the best performances in her too-short career: The actress—Catherine Deneuve’s beloved older sister—would die in a car accident at age twenty-five in 1967. Writing an eloquent homage in Cahiers du cinéma one year after her death, Truffaut would remember Dorléac, who would always be overshadowed by her younger sibling, as an actress “insufficiently appreciated.”

The Soft Skin plays at Film Forum in New York March 11–17. For more details, click here.