Criterion Month: Françoise Dorléac in ‘The Soft Skin’ and ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’

This essay is written by our guest writer, Carlos Valladares.

One of the most powerful images from the Truffaut adultery drama La Peau Douce (The Soft Skin, 1964) belongs to Françoise Dorléac, whose flight attendant, Nicole, is reduced to uncommon tears by the likes of Pierre, her flabby, academic drip of a lover (Jean Desailly). Pierre, the Balzac expert whose lectures weirdly manage to sell out theaters across France, has just spent the entire night publicly avoiding Nicole in a series of flakes more outrageous and humiliating than the last. When Pierre and Nicole reunite in their clandestine hotel room, the scene is heartbreaking: a two-shot (there are many two-shots in this patient, unjudging study of soured love) in which Raoul Coutard’s camera abandons its neutrality in order to highlight Dorléac’s emotions (anger, disgust, shame) over Desailly’s. Dorléac, who faces the camera and who never once returns Desailly’s gaze, struggles to talk squarely with him, without tears. But she cannot. She tells him she plans to stay in the hotel. “Tonight,” she says, with her sobs now coming in aching staccato bursts, “I realized you were ashamed of me.” It’s hard to watch, since tears do not come easily to the kinds of strong, sometimes zany women Dorléac excelled at playing.

Three years later in 1967, the year of her tragic death, we see peak Dorléac in the role of Solange, the effervescent composer whose music fills the air of Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued Rochefort. In Soft Skin, Dorléac nibbles within the noble edges of an unglamorous film, “an autopsy of adultery” (in Truffaut’s own words). In Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort)Dorléac bursts out in a fit of perfect, fab glamor. Her soft face is dotted with freckles. Her red bob weaves up and down as she takes commands of any space (café, music shop, street) around which she stalks or sulks, but never seems to simply step into. Basically, anyone can be made to look glamorous or beautiful or witty in the hands of a good director/cinematographer/hair-stylist. What’s unique about the glamor of Dorléac is the way in which it is so downplayed, so self-evident that it need not be flaunted. Demy’s Les Demoiselles is a perfect example of Dorléac’s democratic impulses in action: Though she and sister Catherine Deneuve are clearly the stars of the film, they never once seem to dominate or distract from the stories of the other Rochefort lovers (Michel Piccoli, Danielle Darrieux, Jacques Perrin, Gene Kelly) as they all struggle to find The One. This is the result of a stellar collaboration between an open-hearted, generous auteur (Demy was one of the cinema’s greatest directors of ensembles) and a just-as-generous actrice. Whether she’s at the center or near the edges of a scene, Dorléac glows with style, charm, poise. With her quick glances, husky voice, and subtle sashay, she’s always asking the people who pass her by: Why strain yourself, darlings?

In one film, she is tortured; in the other, fancy-free; but both of these French masterpieces rely on Françoise Dorléac to keep their investigations of love relaxed and realistic. It has historically been easy, though not right, to ignore Dorléac’s presence in these films. She has good scenes here and there — in a trifling comedy like Ce soir ou Jamais! (1961), it is her manic flibbertigibbet who steals the show (from Anna Karina, no less!) — but for the most part, she routinely appeared in minor-league spy comedies and ill-thought-out epics. Someone thought it a good idea in 1965 to cast her as Genghis Khan’s wife opposite Omar Sharif (hard pass). But in her longest-lasting work — Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Polanski’s Cul-De-Sac (1966), and her greater roles in The Soft Skin and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort — she always strolled through a film with a ballerina’s grace and an inspiring confidence, one which was remarkable for its utter lack of airs or pretension. Today, Dorléac is mostly remembered for two things: (1) she was Catherine Deneuve’s elder sister who (2) was killed in a horrific car accident on the way to the Nice airport on June 26, 1967, aged only 25. Though her output was regrettably small, she should be far more well-known, far more hailed for the two French masterworks she helped polish. Deneuve often said that her sister was the better actor, and while we need not compare the two, we should pick up on Deneuve’s hint: There was something profound in the termite artistry of Dorléac, which the film world did not acknowledge loudly enough, and still does not.

For one, Dorléac’s roles avoid the routine vagueries of the Nouvelle Vagues female characters. Prime example: Godard’s pictures with Anna Karina, which are maddening in their brutally even treatment of this fine actor. The binary between mother and whore, goddess and prostitute, mysterious unknown and sex object, never lets up in all of Godard’s women, whom he likes to worship and tear down at the same time, sometimes in the same shot, in excessive intellectualized terms. At the other end is the spilling-over romantic Truffaut, whose 1960s treatment of women pumps them up into airy imps, wild spirits of the corn. Jeanne Moreau’s tempestuous Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) is the prime victim of what the critic Molly Haskell has dubbed Truffaut’s innocence syndrome: His wish to remain forever an unlucky-in-love adolescent, which comes with its preciousness (1962’s Antoine et Colette, 1976’s Small Change) but, more to the point, its stunted growth (Haskell on Catherine: “a glorious fantasy…an eternal mistress…a Niestzchean Superwoman….beyond good and evil in monogamy in the first half, a force of evil [and] a projection of man’s desire for exclusivity in the second”). Both are tortured romantics — Truffaut more than Godard — who investigate themselves in relation to other women, some of whom turn out to be of marginal interest to the director (Nicole Berger and Marie Dubois do not disturb anything in their wake in Truffaut’s otherwise-heartbreaking Shoot the Piano Player), some of whom are treated with blatant contempt and represent the worst of woman as their male creators see it (the bourgeoise Mireille Darc in Godard’s Weekend).

Dorléac all but avoids the Godardian roles, and under Truffaut in Soft Skin, she gets to putter around in her own zone, flitting about Pierre until she realizes that he has not budged an inch for her. At the beginning of their affair, they start off on equal ground: They are each obsessed gazers, him sizing her up as much as she sizes him up in stolen glances. It’s no coincidence that Georges Delerue’s lovely score sounds like a riff on Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo; Truffaut has extended the Hitchcockian gaze to not just one but two voyeurs (though, tellingly, we only take up the gaze of the man, the pathetic “victim” in whom Truffaut frighteningly sees a bit of himself). Once the affair kicks into high gear, and the wife (a tightly controlled performance by Nelly Benedetti) begins to suspect, the seams of this May to December romance start to pull apart. At a discothèque, Pierre does not dance with Nicole, instead choosing to sit and look at her from afar. She erotically swings her hips while he glances at a safe, leering remove. The Balzac expert’s public image and his completely human fear that he will be found out is more important to him than his feeling of unfettered private joy. It’s a creepy scene, and bells are already ringing that the dynamics of the relationship are off-balance.

Let us return to the hotel. The idea of the affair hasn’t hit Nicole until tonight, and with good reason; she expects that Pierre gives her total devotion and a lover’s attention, like the kind she showers on him. But as she lay there in devastating tears, Pierre can only blubber back, “I know, but the night was humiliating for me, too. What could I do? I was trapped.” Again, as in the discothèque, Pierre blatantly values his public image over her private pains. As the scene ends, Pierre kisses Nicole on the nape of her neck, and Dorléac’s eyes close with a shudder. With that one sensual touch, she realizes in an instant that he will be forgiven for this night — and she hates it. Here is a different, more realistic kind of repulsion than the one embodied by her sister, Catherine Deneuve, the same year. The starchy, twitchy, blank-faced cipher of Repulsion (1965) was mostly an outward projection of director Polanski onto star Deneuve, his own sick fears and neuroses being hurtled onto a fake blank-canvas. But in The Soft Skin, Dorléac’s repulsion — a flash flutter shuddering through the eyelashes — comes, suddenly and without warning, from an unmannered place within Nicole’s soul, perhaps by way of Dorléac’s. The scene is exemplary of Dorléac’s greatest strength as an actor: no strain, no congestion pervades any one of her mundane yet all-too-real gestures.

Dorléac is so good at the beautiful hidden gesture that it takes a while to realize it. In Les Demoiselles, she always seems to be playing trumpets or flutes, sitting on and off her piano stool, boosting her leg up in a high-kick as she tells her mom (Ophuls regular Danielle Darrieux) about her encounter with her Dream Man (haven’t we all been here — breathlessly recounting an encounter with a crush, in all its asinine details, to a sibling or a best friend? Not knowing which details are important and which are boring filler?) Dorléac recounts meeting Gene Kelly in song, in a sort of tribute to this wasteful yet curiously noble genre of storytelling. She subsumes her artsy giddiness, never letting it show.

Another key Dorléac rule: Never hog space, always meet people on a one-to-one ratio. Her final scene in Soft Skin is thrilling for the way in which the Truffaut/Coutard camera tracks Dorléac as she walks slowly alongside it, making it look as though Dorléac is walking on some mystical treadmill. She has more than earned this glorious pictorial moment: the camera recognizes that Pierre is a hopeless cause, and chooses to listen alongside the too-generous, too-giving Nicole. Likewise, her theme song in Les Demoiselles, “A Pair of Twins,” is remarkable for how many times one can watch it while forgetting its most obvious feature: She and Deneuve look directly into the camera. In the open, democratic spaces of Rochefort, she returns Demy’s exuberant regard, quite unlike the “objective” cold gaze of Godard or the manic “soak-in-everything!” gaze of Truffaut. All the men and women of Rochefort pine for love on a more-or-less level playing field. Even the most blatant fuckboys, the bashful and dumb yet lovable carnies (George Chakiris and Grover Dale), are treated by Dorléac as if they were cute puppies instead of the wolves they think they are. The carnies are also looking for love; they don’t know what the word “love” means at all, but their chauvinism is always tempered by les femmes who regard them as “our boys,” our responsibility. Dorléac feels compassion on Monday morning when the fair is packing and the carnies are about to leave; ever the artist, she likes a challenge when she sees it, and she conspires with Deneuve to go along with them for the ride. Maybe they’ll change.

But Dorléac doesn’t get a chance to ride along. She reunites instead with Gene Kelly, in one of the simplest yet most sublime musical numbers the cinema has ever known. And yet — and yet! — it’s Solange’s happy ending that reveals the melancholic depths of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

Rochefort’s happiness has, I find, been a bit overstated. Sure, everyone who was in love gets their happy ending — the carnies go on to their next town, still busy bees flitting from flower to flower; Yvonne reunites with Monsieur Dame, Dorléac snags Gene-goddamn-Kelly. But what lingers in the mind is Catherine Deneuve, sitting alone in a café, clueless, lost in thought, unaware that she and her true love (Jacques Perrin) have missed each other by literal seconds. Whenever I show Les Demoiselles to people, there is always the same reaction to this cruel moment: Groans, curses, cries of “NO!” and “Why!” People get angry. They feel like they’ve been cheated out of the perfect happiness. And this, I believe, is the emotional fulcrum of Demy’s cinema. Speaking for myself, and I hope for others as well, I feel the “real” ending (Jacques Perrin gets into Deneuve’s car at the end) is not convincing. There are too many holes: We never see the reunion of Deneuve and Perrin we’ve been longing to see throughout the entire film. It only happens “by the script.” It feels like Demy’s conscious concession to the generic constraints of “the happy musical ending.” It is a mere sop of an ending, and should be treated as such. The real ending is that image of Deneuve in the café, Deneuve in the truck, searching the air for any waves her lover’s spirit has left behind as Michel Legrand’s plaintive piano translates her sorrow for us. That is the image that haunts those of us who still search. This “antidote” to the bittersweet, far-more-depressing Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is nothing of the sort. It only proves that Demy cinema’s mixed-up emotions are just the right amount of dream and reality, finding its ideal couple in Deneuve and Dorléac.

To bolster the point, we need only look at the fate of Dorléac, who was rushing to the premiere of this very film at the instant of her death. You cannot deny the postmortem eeriness of her ballet with Gene Kelly. It would be the apotheosis of anybody’s life to dance with Kelly, but it is all the more apt that it was Dorléac, whose instinct for the unheralded gesture made her a prime candidate for a nose-to-the-ground, ordinary woman made extraordinary, immortal, for all time. There is a bitterly cosmic irony at work in the fact that Catherine Deneuve could not view Les Demoiselles de Rochefort for years after finishing it — and probably still cannot. The happiest film in the world is nothing but sadness for its star. It reminds her too much of Françoise.

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