Sunday, 29 May 2011

'Silken Skin' and 'Day for Night': Two Truffaut Films Worth Watching

I've been doing a bit of reading around the Nouvelle Vague of late, with Emilie Bickerton's comprehensive chronological history of the Cahiers Du Cinema the book I'm currently reading. So it was a happy coincidence that the Duke of York's recently put on a Francois Truffaut double-bill featuring two films I'd never seen before: 1964 thriller 'Silken Skin' - also know as 'The Soft Skin' - and 'Day for Night', which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1973. Below are mini-reviews of both:

Silken Skin (La Peau Douce)

'Silken Skin' is about a French literary celebrity, Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), who takes a business trip to Lisbon, where me meets a young air hostess (Françoise Dorléac) with whom he falls deeply in love. The majority of the film concerns Pierre sneaking away from his wife (Nelly Benedetti) to hook-up with his mistress, before he is eventually caught in a lie and has to make a decision.

It all seems simple, even banal, enough - a straightforward relationship drama. Yet Truffaut shoots the whole thing as if in homage to his idol Hitchcock and it plays like a thriller. The music is foreboding and the over-the-shoulder shots of people driving are reminiscent of 'Psycho', with the whole thing building to a powerful climax which is all the more striking due to the director's knowing refusal to forecast it during the preceding events (Truffaut was far too well schooled in Hitchcock for the abrupt ending to have been a result of structural deficiency).

It's seemingly a film about a cheating, nihilistic, self-satisfied husband - a man who tells his women what to wear - but 'Silken Skin' ultimately turns out to be about the women, as it cleverly subverts your expectations. It's also every bit as human as something like 'The 400 Blows', and though it's played straight for the most part, the film is not lacking in its directors subversive, darkly comic sensibility.

Day for Night (La nuit américaine)

When Jean-Luc Godard commented on the falseness of the motion picture industry in films like 'Tout Va Bien' (1972) (the credits of which feature a producer writing cheques to the cast and crew), it was tinged with bitterness and cynicism. On the other hand, Truffaut made 'Day for Night' just a year later - the quintessential movie about making movies - with a great sense of fun. Above all else, the film is entertaining. Visually it is a splendid, brightly coloured precursor to Wes Anderson, who most certainly paid homage to the film in his American Express advert - basically a riff on Truffaut's role as director within the movie, forever fielding questions from his crew and making decisions. (Though Anderson also borrows liberally from Godard and 'Tout Va Bien' in particular in his work.)

The film boasts some fantastic tracking shots too, but Truffaut never showboats without pulling back and making a joke at his own expense - and at the expense of the art form. It's always clear that he held cinema in the greatest reverence, but he was also able to channel that love into this high-spirited, good-natured look at the process and the industry.

The film is about the making of a movie, but the movie is beset by problems, feuds, death and even by a kitten who can't drink milk on cue (in a hilarious nod to an identical shot in 'Silken Skin'). Truffaut invites us into the kitchen and shows us how the sausage is made - and in a way which, for me at least, is far more fun than Fellini's '8 1/2'.

It also has a fantastic score, composed by Georges Delerue, which celebrates the wonders of the film making process as we watch sets being constructed or stunts being performed. It's clever without being smug and thoroughly enjoyable from the first minute to the last.

Both these films are deserving of far more attention than these short write-ups here, but I wanted to urge anyone who reads this to seek them out. Fantastic films both.

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