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  Peau Douce, La The Obsessed
Year: 1964
Director: François Truffaut
Stars: Jean Desailly, Françoise Dorléac, Nelly Benedetti, Daniel Ceccaldi, Laurence Badie, Philippe Dumat, Paule Emmanuelle, Maurice Garrel, Sabine Haudepin, Dominique Lacarriere, Jean Lanier, Pierre Risch
Genre: Drama, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) is a celebrity intellectual, a writer of books on Balzac who has won great acclaim as one of the leading thinkers of his day. He lives in a Parisian apartment with his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and their young daughter and seems content with his lot: he has reached the pinnacle of his profession, and his additional work as a book editor helps keep his head above water financially. However, one weekend he has to attend a conference in Lisbon to give a speech, and once on the aeroplane there he notices one of the stewardesses, Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), keeps looking at him.

She obviously recognises him from the posters dotted around the place, but something about the way she changes her shoes captivates him... Soundly lambasted at the time, La Peau Douce was François Truffaut's attempt to fill a bit of time before he could finally get his adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 off the ground, so he conjured up this sketch of a failing marriage to amuse himself. Whether he had quite reckoned on the overwhelmingly negative reaction was a different matter: coming hot on the heels of Jules et Jim, a film that was genuinely startling at the time, hopes were high for a masterpiece, but it as not to be.

Plus the fact the subject matter was resolutely middle class - this was at the height of the French critics decrying anything even remotely bourgeoisie as horrendous decadence - it could charitably be termed a disappointment for the Nouvelle Vague fans of the director. And yet, such is the magnetic quality of Truffaut's efforts that his flops can attract fans as well as his successes, a cult built up around La Peau Douce, partly because of its leading lady, Dorléac being the tragically shortlived sister of France's most famous star, Catherine Deneuve. In retrospect, the redhead was building a promising career, working with all sorts of interesting filmmakers, in a way that her sister would take her cue from for the rest of her career in turn.

The thought of two French megastars having parallel careers of this quality is one that was cruelly taken from us when Dorléac was involved in a fatal car crash during the mid-nineteen-sixties, but watch this item and you'll see her charisma and easy talent for acting, though technically she is only in this for about half the movie, if you tally her screen time compared with the somewhat lumpen Desailly. That's the joke, of course - it's not an absolute kneeslapper, but it is the central irony the plot's rather foreseeable machinations revolve around. This man, Pierre, who can out-think Balzac and tell us what he really meant, among many others with respected mental capacities, is a bit of an idiot when it comes to his private life.

He has that life completely in order, something so few of us have the luxury of, and he could have carried on in that vein, comfortably and wanting for nothing, but he had to jeopardise the whole set-up for the sake of an erotic fixation with the stewardess who was really one step up from a groupie (intellectuals have groupies in France, apparently). The film is not actively a comedy, but it is structured as one, it just doesn't have that many jokes. The closest it gets to farce is when Pierre and Nicole go off for a dirty weekend at a speaking engagement he has arranged and find the starstruck locals won't leave him alone, a curious set of circumstances when you don't really see the big deal about the central character. As it moves towards a typically abrupt conclusion for the New Wave (torn from the headlines, supposedly, for those who think it farfetched), your enjoyment levels will depend on how much you get out of Pierre messing up. Music by Georges Delerue.

[The BFI release this on Blu-ray with these special features:

Presented in High Definition from a 2K restoration
Feature commentary by La Peau douce co-writer Jean-Louis Richard, with contributions from film critic and journalist Serge Toubiana (2002)
Between Masters at War: Truffaut and the Lessons of Alfred Hitchcock and Roberto Rossellini (2022, 18 mins): film academic Pasquale Iannone considers how the work of Truffaut was influenced by two great directors
Paris Through the Lens (1900-1910, 9 mins): precious glimpses of the sprawling city Truffaut loved from the BFI National Archive
Old Portugal at the Ocean's Edge (1896, 1 min): mesmerising early film fragments, shot near Lisbon long before it provided the setting for illicit love in La Peau douce
Original theatrical trailer
***First pressing only*** Illustrated booklet with essays by Catherine Wheatley and Kieron McCormack, credits and notes on the special features]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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